1. Word group
2. The dilemma
a. Alienated from God
b. Hostile in mind
c. Doing evil deeds
3. Man’s attempt at a solution
4. God’s work of reconciliation
a. Alienated from God
b. Hostile in mind
c. Doing evil deeds
d. Holy, blameless, irreproachable
The allusion to OT sacrifice
1. The sacrifice
2. The minister
Continuing in the faith
Two to one
If you’ve been following the series of studies on Colossians and have arrived here from the previous web page, you’ll probably already be fed up with me having announced at the start of each and every web page from Col 1:9 onwards that the sentence in the Greek runs continually through to the end of Col 1:23.
But it continues to be important and obscured by most modern translations who add full-stops and paragraphs to break it up into more manageable chunks for the reader. This has already had the effect of making Col 1:15-20 appear to be a hymn or creed which was in existence in the early Church because it stands alone in most modern translations as being a distinct unit.
However, Paul and Timothy’s opening remarks concerning their prayers for the Colossians (Col 1:9a) seems to have been the stimulus to go on to give them the substance of their requests (Col 1:9b-12a) before the mention of giving thanks to the Father (Col 1:12a) seems to inspire them to speak of the work which they’ve now experienced from His hand (Col 1:12b-14).
Again, that Jesus is central to the work of God for mankind is another catalyst (Col 1:13) which provides the basis for their Christology (Col 1:15-20) and the mention of the reconciliation of the entire created order (Col 1:20) indicates a springboard for them to single out personal reconciliation and describe it as having been received by the recipients of their letter (Col 1:21-23).
Indeed, the entire passage seems to come about as a consequence of the first statement which diverts them into other issues as they mention them. Instead of it being a clearly devised structure before such words were put down in the letter it is, perhaps, better to think of the authors as knowing what they wanted to say to the fellowship and making sure that they eventually dealt with it but that they also felt free to speak about what came to mind.
But there are also consequences here which can be paired together. For there to be reconciliation (Col 1:20,22) there must also have existed alienation (Col 1:21). For there to be peace (Col 1:20), the prior existence of hostility and enmity (Col 1:21). For there to be a new creation (Col 1:18-20), there must have been the existence and a tainting of the old (Col 1:15-17). Even for forgiveness to be inferred by the mention of the cross (Col 1:22), there must also be the recognition of evil deeds which need to be dealt with (Col 1:21).
In each way, therefore, Paul and Timothy are concerned to show the sufficiency of the work of Jesus Christ for uniting all things in Heaven and on earth (Col 1:20) but now, as they continue, with reference to mankind and the Colossian believers specifically (Col 1:21-23).
The reader should note that some of what follows are a minor reworking of my notes on the Restoration of Creation Part 2 Section 1 and appear here with little or no expansion or addition - especially the explanation of the threefold solution under the heading ‘God’s work of reconciliation’.
That Col 1:22 uses the Greek word for reconciliation is important for it’s one of the ‘great’ words which has often been used by commentators to summate the work of the cross - that is, all Jesus’ work on the cross can be viewed from the perspective of God getting mankind back into a right relationship with Him that was lost through the original rebellion in the Garden.
There’s good reason, therefore, for us to pause in the commentary and to try and deal with the subject of ‘Reconciliation’ on its own (but by recourse to Col 1:21-22a also) that it might be more fully understood in the context of Paul and Timothy’s letter.
1. Word group
If reconciliation was one of the greatest ways in the early Church to express the work of Christ on the cross and what it’s accomplished for mankind, one would have thought that the three words which denote it would have been used with more frequency than they are. As it is, they appear on just thirteen occasions and then only in the letters of Paul where we might have expected them both in the Gospels and Acts. These three words each come from another Greek word (allasso - Strongs Greek number 236) meaning, as Vines
‘to make other than it is’
or, more simply, ‘to change’ but used in varied applications (yet only occurring six times in the NT - Acts 6:14, Rom 1:23, I Cor 15:51,52, Gal 4:20, Heb 1:12) though never when referring to the change which comes about in a believer’s life when they turn from their own ways to serve God in Jesus Christ.
So it’s the word used when the charge is brought against Stephen (Acts 6:14) that he was proclaiming that Jesus Christ would
‘...change the customs which Moses delivered to us’
and when Paul desires that His reaction to the way the Galatians are living might be transformed to one which was the more favourable and positive (Gal 4:20). The only direct use of the word in the NT to the work of God in Christ is found in I Cor 15:51-52 where the word occurs twice speaking about the transformation of the earthly bodies when Jesus returns.
The word, however, can also mean ‘exchange’ and it seems to bear this meaning when two conditions are being described that someone or something has moved through. Therefore, the RSV renders it this way in Rom 1:22-23 where Paul’s recorded as writing that mankind, although claiming to be wise
‘...became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles’
Barclay comments concerning this word that it
‘...can be used of almost any kind of change’
and then notes that the word was used as the basis of a number of other separate compound words which were employed in various situations to denote specific types of change. For our discussion, we need only to look at, firstly, the noun and verb which occur four and six times respectively in the NT, transliterated as katallage (Strongs Greek number 2643 - Rom 5:11, 11:15, II Cor 5:18,19) and katallasso (Strongs Greek number 2644 - Rom 5:10 twice, I Cor 7:11, II Cor 5:18,19,20).
Barclay notes that, initially, the words were employed in a technical sense of exchanging something of value into money - whether it be gold or foreign coinage. It’s obvious, therefore, that the ‘from-to’ implication in the original word still holds as a meaning in the compound words and Barclay goes on to cite another example from Aristotle where mercenaries were willing to exchange their own lives for small sums of money which were less than their services deserved.
Finally, he notes that the word as also employed to speak of
‘...the change of enmity into friendship’
and not of ‘making friends’ where no change of status is being indicated - that is, there has to be a break down of a relationship before the Greek words would be considered to be correctly used when the relationship is restored and the two friends reconciled. Kittels notes that the marriage records of ancient Greece employ a related word for marital reconciliation and it’s not without significance that Paul uses the word group in I Cor 7:10-11 when he speaks of marriage relationships within the Church, commenting that
‘...the wife should not separate from her husband - but if she does, let her remain single or else be reconciled to her husband - and that the husband should not divorce his wife’
where the thought isn’t that some sort of truce could be worked out in which both would tolerate one another to maintain their marriage but that there’s a change in the broken relationship to one of friendship. As I noted on the previous web page, the idea is not that of a truce but of the restoration of a relationship that was in existence before the breakdown.
Most ‘peace processes’ in the political realm aim far too low by pointing towards a common ground that each can be happy with, where each concedes a little in order to make a pact that might bring in some small degree of improved relations between the two parties. Compromise is not reconciliation and, even though it may have achieved some desired ends, it has done nothing to deal with the underlying root causes of the problems which remain.
This is never reconciliation, then, and shouldn’t be thought of as such - rather, it’s an attempt for each side to have their own way without giving themselves wholly over to restore the broken relationship and to embrace friendship.
Morris speaks of reconciliation as being the need of both sides to identify the root cause of the enmity and to deal with it before there can be a ‘genuine reconciliation’. He goes on that
‘...it is worth noticing that in many of the modern world’s trouble-spots this seems to be overlooked. People concentrate on the symptoms and do not get to grips with the deep-seated causes of the trouble. This can never lead to long-lasting peace’
So, although political agendas may succeed in causing truces to be agreed upon, it’s unlikely that two warring factions will ever achieve a continually stable peace because the basis of the agreement is seldom to deal with the root cause and so renew friendship. But this is the weight and intention of the two Greek words and shouldn’t be lessened.
There’s one final word used to denote reconciliation (apokatalasso - Strongs Greek number 604) which is used just the three times in the NT (Eph 2:16, Col 1:20,22). The prefix should have the effect of strengthening the meaning of the word so that it more rightly would mean ‘to utterly reconcile’ but many commentators see only that it’s used with the same meaning as the words from which it comes with no emphasis added.
The word doesn’t occur at all in any Greek documents prior to the NT so an attempt at seeing whether it might be an intensified form is impossible. It may be, therefore, that the word was coined originally in the NT Church for the work of God in reconciliation through Christ and, if so, it’s difficult to imagine that it didn’t have an absolute meaning when used.
After all, while there may have been various forms of ‘reconciliation’ in every day living which brought to situations a greater or lesser degree of harmony between the two parties, apokatalasso was used to denote an absolute work of reconciliation which had established the grounds for a perfect restoration of a broken down relationship.
Although we’ve taken a large amount of space to say what we could have done in just a couple of paragraphs, we should note that the testimony of the Greek usage of the words means that a change is always implied in the words and, when it’s used of a relationship between two parties, the implication is always that there’s been a breakdown in the relationship between them from one of either friendship or neutrality into enmity and hatred which is then changed through the reconciliatory process into one not of tolerance but of friendship and, perhaps even, trust.
2. The dilemma
Even though it’s no more than an aside in Kittels, their opening statement concerning the use of katallasso described in the previous section is extremely significant. They write
‘The [word] group plays no part in pagan expiatory writes...’
though they do note a singular usage of the word in a religious sense (Sophocles Ajax 744). NIDNTT draws out the importance of such a statement, however, when they note the same single reference and comment that
‘It is not a term that can be used of propitiatory rites: in general the thought of a personal relationship to God is far removed from Greek thought...’
It seems straightforward and unambiguous, therefore, that the ancient Greeks to which Paul’s letter would have come didn’t regard their deities as being capable of such a depth of fellowship and a relationship that could be restored which would parallel that between two men. Paul sees no such problem, however, and, though the word group doesn’t occur frequently in the NT, it’s still a foundation upon which to proclaim the work of the cross.
Perhaps, even, part of the attraction (naturally speaking) of the Gospel was its insistence that the supreme Deity could be known as a friend, removing the fear which existed in the lives and minds of those men and women who continually sought to propitiate their gods to gain their favour. In the New Covenant, in contrast, rather than see man strive to avert God’s wrath, God Himself was seen to have done something about the dilemma (see my notes on ‘Propitiation’) in order that men and women might find freedom to approach before His presence.
Judaism isn’t without such a concept in its framework for it speaks of reconciliation on a few occasions in the Apocrypha (cited by commentators but the relevance of them for speaking of the reconciliation between man and God by self-effort is somewhat strained except in one particular place which I’ve explained under the header ‘Man’s attempt at a solution’) but, for now, we’ll look solely at the basis of the dilemma which mankind finds himself in and leave a short discussion of the Rabbinic view until the next section.
That one aspect of the cross is that a relationship might be restored which had broken down and been the source of enmity is also a declaration that there was a time when friendship must have existed between both God and man and that there’s a point of animosity which had gone unresolved until Jesus took it upon Himself to deal with the offence and make the way for the relationship to be restored.
I’ve already dealt with this point of conflict on my web page dealing with the Creation and its restoration in Christ (Part 2 Section 1 ‘Man - Created to have fellowship’) and the reader is directed there for a fuller discussion which traces the results of that initial act through the testimony of the OT and into the new where Jesus removed the barrier for totally free access into God’s presence once more. All I intend doing here is to give a very short synopsis of the problem based on those notes.
The word ‘Reconciliation’ could have been used in place of the word ‘Restoration’ for I dealt with the re-subjugation of the created order under its rightful Sovereign but there were certain aspects inherent in the concept of reconciliation that make me realise that to go back and alter the title would be misleading unless I also altered the teaching to reflect it.
‘Restoration’ is still the better of the two words which should be used but the three aspects of the restoration which take up all of part 2 of that web page have varying relevancy to the NT concept of reconciliation.
It’s not without good reason, therefore, that many commentators see in the word ‘Reconciliation’ the major concept behind the work of the cross, even though the Greek word group is only used thirteen times in the NT and rarely in the LXX.
It’s evident from the earliest Scriptures that man was created to have fellowship with God. In Gen 3:8 we read that the first man and woman, Adam and Eve
‘...heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden...the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden...’
where direct access into God’s presence is the natural requirement of such a statement and observation. In the garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve walked freely in the midst of God’s Creation, they had perfect fellowship with God, there being no barriers that restricted their access to Him and there being nothing that was negative in their relationship with the Creator. God walked in human form with man (or so the interpretation appears to be of Gen 3:8) and conversed face to face.
Though this may be hard for us to conceive, there’s certainly no reason to see in the set up of the original Creation any ground that they could not have shared with God.
But then man chose to go his own way apart from God. Instead of listening to the One who’d given them life and trusting Him for all the wisdom and knowledge that they needed, they effectively rebelled against His rule by choosing to listen to the voice of the serpent over His voice. When the suggestion of the serpent plainly contradicted God’s known command, they had every opportunity to put a creature who was already under their rule down (Gen 1:26), but they chose instead to listen and obey, and the fellowship that man had had with the Creator was destroyed.
Adam’s experience of sin, then, caused the relationship to be broken. Had he remained in the innocence of knowing what was wrong without experiencing it, then there would have been no judgment - but once he overstepped the mark, God had to step in and judge.
So began the barrier, the ‘veil of separation’ (as I noted in my previously cited notes) between God and man, the veil being a symbol of the sin that had been committed in the Garden and which separated mankind from the presence of God.
But separation from God is only one aspect of the problem which then existed and the veil which can be traced through the OT and into the new is only one aspect of the break down of the relationship that came about through sin. In its place there exists both alienation (RSV ‘estranged’) and hostility (RSV ‘hostile’) as Paul describes in Col 1:21 before he goes on to note the Colossians’ reconciliation to God in the next verse.
Mankind is alienated from the presence of God and are enemies of the purposes of God (and, therefore, of God Himself) through the results not only of the first man who sinned but through the continuing way of life (the ‘evil deeds’ of Col 1:21) that dethrones God from His rightful place as Sovereign over all the created order and causes Him to be subservient to his own will.
By the use of the three descriptions of man’s plight, Paul and Timothy aren’t hinting at a slight disagreement which can be easily resolved but a major break down of relationships which separate two parties into opposing camps. Morris writes that
‘...Paul may speak of men as alienated from God (Eph 4:18, Col 1:21) or as enemies of God (Rom 5:10, Phil 3:18, Col 1:21). Such expressions do not mean that there is a slight coolness between God and sinners. They mean that they are in opposite camps. Sinners range themselves against God. They must expect nothing but hostility from the God whose enemies they have become. The language is vigorous. The meaning is not in doubt’
We’ll now go on to discuss these three concepts of alienation (alienated from God), hostility (hostility in mind) and unrighteousness (doing evil deeds) and attempt to see what further negative aspects of the Fall replaced a perfect relationship with God.
a. Alienated from God
In my earlier notes on the Restoration of Creation all I did was to trace the existence of the veil which separated the presence of God from mankind in general to show that, apart from the High Priest, access into God’s presence was forbidden.
Even so, the Israelites in the OT were the people who had God’s presence dwelling in their midst - even if they weren’t able to take it upon themselves to come into the presence of YHWH as Adam and Eve had done in the Garden.
For the Gentile, however, the idea of alienation was much more stark for even the blessings of God which were showered upon His people didn’t overflow out into the lands in which they were living round about Canaan (or, if they did, they were limited in scope) and the Israelites were expected to be a people who had removed the non-Jew from themselves with such vigour that not even one non-God fearer would be ultimately found resident throughout their land.
This is, perhaps, too definitive a statement for strangers and aliens would, no doubt, have travelled to and fro in the land and used Canaan as the ancient routeway that it was to move from Egypt and Africa in the south to Babylonia and Mesopotamia in the north. Besides the acceptance of Edomites and Egyptians in the third generation of those resident in the land would imply that foreigners could join themselves to the Israelites.
Nevertheless, it was plain that the Israelites were set apart from all the other nations of the world by the uniqueness of their calling (Ex 19:5).
Even though the nation was given specific instructions not to harass the stranger and foreigner when they came into the land (Deut 10:19), by reading some of the instructions given to the nation it’s plain that they were treated as second-class citizens and weren’t to be numbered amongst those who were accepted naturally as being God’s special people (Ex 12:43, Lev 22:25, Deut 15:3, 17:15, 23:20) and Ruth’s question of surprise in Ruth 2:10 where she asks
‘Why have I found favour in your eyes that you should take notice of me when I am a foreigner?’
is a sure indication that those people which lay immediately outside the boundaries of the land knew that, although they would be well-treated, there was a point at which the Jew would refrain from favouring them for it would have been to the detriment of their own people.
In Deut 23:3-8 also, the Law lays down specific prohibitions against accepting foreigners into the congregation of Israel. The Ammonite and Moabite were forbidden from ever becoming accepted as the Lord’s people (Deut 23:3-4 - though the experience of Ruth the Moabitess and the use of her by YHWH as one of the mothers of both David and Jesus is noteworthy) but, even the Edomite and Egyptian who they were specifically told not to hate, still couldn’t be accepted into their society until the third generation of descendants were resident in the land (Deut 23:7-8).
The Law, having made this distinction between Israel and all the other nations, sought to preserve a pure and undefiled people to serve Him in purity but only if the Law was to be removed could the distinction also be taken out of the way.
So the mention of the Colossians as being ‘estranged’ or alienated (where the NIV adds ‘from God’ to try and give the sense of the statement as applying to both Jew and Gentile - but the Greek may lack this phrase so that it can be seen to apply both to the Gentile who knew alienation from God’s people and the Jew and Gentile who knew alienation away from the presence of God) is particularly a Gentile experience when viewed from the viewpoint of the nation and people of Israel who excluded the non-Jews from any spiritual heritage and inheritance that they would have sought to possess amongst the people (unless, of course, a proselyte was made but, even then, equality with the Jew may not have been achieved til generations later).
Even the Temple had an outer boundary within its enclosure which forbade Gentiles to come any nearer to God than a distance away, there being a large notice erected which read (cited in Morris)
‘No foreigner may enter within the balustrade and enclosure around the Sanctuary. Whoever is caught will render himself liable to the death penalty which will inevitably follow’
The problem, however, became one of spiritual elitism for the Jew who saw the special favour in which the nation stood before God and was tempted to think of himself as in need of nothing much in the way of salvation. Sure, he might do a few things wrong but hadn’t the nation been chosen by God as His own special possession amongst all the nations of the earth? And weren’t they the natural inheritors of all the promises of God? And wouldn’t it be through them that the world would once again be subject to the will of God in the soon coming Messiah?
What the Jew forgot to realise was that they were still forbidden to enter in to God’s presence by the veil which hung at the doorway into the Holiest of Holies. In some senses, the nation of Israel was in no better a position than the Gentiles for they were still experiencing the results of the first transgression in Adam which had brought upon the world the effects throughout the created order and had made the need for sacrifice and atonement.
Even some of the psalmists noted that they considered themselves to be simply strangers and sojourners before God (Ps 39:12, Ps 119:19), where the former of these two verses records the author as noting
‘...I am Thy passing guest, a sojourner, like all my fathers’
People who speak of themselves as strangers in a land that has been given to them as a possession on the earth make it plain that they still consider themselves not to have arrived in a land in which they feel ‘at home’, in a land that’s a restoration of the set up in which God’s presence moved and dwelt amongst mankind with freedom of access.
Perhaps the Jew should also have been reminded that the land of Canaan was only ‘on loan’ when, in Lev 25:23 (my italics), YHWH observed that
‘The land shall not be sold in perpetuity for the land is Mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with Me’
and the prophetic promises in which He promised that the eunuch wouldn’t be rejected by Him simply because of a natural disfigurement (Deut 23:1) but would be welcomed into the fold of those who He considered to be His own if they sought after and did those things which pleased Him (Is 56:3-5). So, too, the foreigner who feared being cut off from God’s people (Is 56:3) would be acceptable in God’s sight if they lived as He would have them to do on the earth (Is 56:6-7), YHWH concluding by observing that He would not only gather the outcasts of Israel back into the nation but would (Is 56:8)
‘...gather yet others to him besides those already gathered’
The exile away from the presence of God which the Gentile felt and experienced by their rebuttal from the congregation of Israel should also have been perceived in the lives of the Jews to some extent if they’d’ve stopped to consider the set up of both the Tabernacle (Ex 26:31) and Temple (II Chr 3:14) in which God’s presence was separated from them by a veil with embroidered cherubim, which pointed back to the Garden (Gen 3:22-24) and the universal problem which sin had brought into the world for all men.
Separation from God, therefore, was an experience of the Jew as much as it was for the Gentile and alienation from the presence of God was the experience of all men because all men sinned and did those things which were displeasing to Him. That God raised up a nation to represent Him on the earth shouldn’t detract us from the results of the first transgression in Adam which caused all men to be alienated away from God and so foreigners, living in a land in which they weren’t originally born to live.
b. Hostile in mind
I dealt with alienation as the first of the three characteristics because this is the way it runs chronologically in Col 1:21. It is, however, more reasonable to think of that subject as being a consequence of this and the next point which Paul and Timothy have mentioned for it’s in the nature and deeds of man that alienation with God is achieved and, when these two are dealt with in the cross, alienation becomes immediately remedied.
Man’s problem, then, isn’t simply that he does ‘evil deeds’ (see the next section) - the problem is that what goes on inside a man is just as much at variance with the purposes of God as are those things which find themselves inspired by them. Therefore Jesus is quick to point out not that it’s only important to maintain an outward righteousness which appears to gain for oneself acceptance before God but an internal one where God has the Sovereignty over even the thoughts and workings of the mind. So, in Mtw 5:27-28, Jesus reminds His hearers of the command which forbids the external sin of adultery but then goes on to observe that
‘...every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart’
because the well spring from which adultery takes place is that which occurs within a man (see my notes here). His declaratory statement to His disciples (Mtw 5:20) that
‘...unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’
must have come as a great shock to many of those who were listening (and even more so to the Pharisees themselves!) because they were held in high esteem amongst the people as being God’s special possession in the midst of the nation.
Not only here does Jesus call them to account but also as they sought to apply their own brand of external righteousness to the disciples as they ate with unwashed hands (Mark 7:1ff). He shows up their own religious observances for what they’d become and then moves on to explain to the disciples (Mark 7:21-23 - my italics) that
‘...from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man’
It’s this which lay at the heart of a man and which caused him to be hostile towards God (see my notes here under the heading ‘Evil thoughts and the solution’ where I’ve shown the function of the flesh or ‘fallen nature’ as it’s described by Jesus and the relationship of satan to mankind in providing temptation to provoke a man or woman to carry out the desires of their own minds). The phrase here might better be taken to mean more than simply the work of the flesh or ‘fallen nature’ even though this appears to be the bottom line. So Colcar observes that
‘It was their mind with its sinful self-centred attitude which was the source of the rebellion against God...’
while Colwright takes time to define the Greek word translated ‘mind’ as holding the meaning of
‘...the way it works, the processes of understanding and intellect’
and therefore of meaning thought processes which might be stimulated by the inward desires but which could be thought to have acted independently of them. It seems best, however, to accept the testimony of Paul in Rom 8:7-8 who links the mind (though a different Greek word is employed here) with the fallen nature when he writes that
‘...the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God...and those who are in the flesh cannot please God’
Even though the mind does operate independently of the desires of the heart, the thought processes are geared towards rebellion against both God and His purposes, making the man or woman an enemy of God - someone who’s waging a war against Him by the way their thoughts lead them on and which will express themselves through the life of the person by evil deeds (that is, actions which are opposed to God - not just armed robbery, murder and the like - see the following section).
It has well been said that the major battlefield for believers is the mind for it’s here that actions can be formulated which can then be masked discreetly to make it look as if the affairs and concerns of God are at heart when, all the while, what lies behind them are selfish schemes.
c. Doing evil deeds
I need write no more than a few lines here seeing as believers are well assured that men and women do that which is evil. As I’ve noted in the previous section, the main problem with men and women is not that such things take place but that they have a well-spring within them that prompts the individual to continue walking in them. So Colbrien puts it succinctly that being hostile in mind
‘...naturally finds visible expression in active behaviour’
We saw how Jesus used the internal workings of a man to show that external righteousness is insufficient to gain acceptance before God so that it must be dealt with also by the work of the cross for a man to be free from the hostility within, which would soon breakdown a restored or reconciled relationship with God.
But, if solely this rebellion had been dealt with, it wouldn’t have settled the account when the actions of mankind were considered. That evil deeds are the product of evil thoughts is true - but that they need their own provision to have them removed is equally true.
Colwright sees the mention of internal and external rebellion as being a cycle from which man is unable to break free. He writes that
‘Wrong thinking leads to vice [evil deeds], vice to further mental corruption, so that the mind, still not totally ignorant of God’s standards, finds itself applauding evil’
and it’s easy to see the integration of these last two points of rebellion as being the reason for man’s alienation away from God.
3. Man’s attempt at a solution
That there’s a problem which exists between God and man can be clearly perceived by men and women when the testimony of Scripture is fully accepted and understood and it’s certain that there have been men and women throughout history - not just in the OT - who not only believed in the existence of God but who realised that things were seriously amiss.
For example, the writer of II Maccabees records an event when (II Maccabees 8:28-29)
‘...after the sabbath, when they had given part of the spoils to the maimed and the widows and orphans, the residue they divided among themselves and their servants. When this was done and they had made a common supplication, they besought the merciful Lord to be reconciled with his servants for ever’
where we seem to be correct in assuming that the charitable acts of mercy were what gave them confidence that their prayers might be heard and that reconciliation with God might be achieved as an everlasting status. However, the problem not only with Judaism but with world religions in general - including the more legalistic ‘christian’ groups - is that reconciliation is often perceived of as being attainable through the work and initiative of man.
The real problem with the celebration of Mass shouldn’t be the belief that the symbols of bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ but that man is able to cleanse himself by the observance of the rite. There’s absolutely nothing - and there never has been anything - which man is able to do which will propitiate YHWH and ‘twist His arm’ to be favourable to mankind.
His grace is just that - gracious - and not dependant upon a work of mankind to kindle it. Rather, a response to that grace is what’s required where the initiative for reconciliation resides in a work of God offered freely to all men. Even more so, when man thinks of himself as able to deal with the effects of his own shortcomings, he takes himself into a position of thinking that he’s able to satisfy God’s demands of perfection. So, the sons of Korah were able to write with some justification and using redemption terminology (Ps 49:7-9) that
‘...no man can ransom himself, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of his life is costly and can never suffice that he should continue to live on for ever, and never see the Pit’
So reconciliation can only be considered as a work of God - something which man is at a loss to achieve but which God has taken it upon Himself to deal with, that the original relationship that He’d established between Himself and man might be restored.
As we’ll see in the next section, that the problem between man and God often goes unperceived in the minds of men and women is more common than unusual - even if they do confess the existence of God. That mankind doesn’t perceive a problem indicates that he has no inkling that there’s a need for any solution. But, because God perceives the alienation and enmity, it becomes something that only He is able to deal with.
4. God’s work of reconciliation
So far, we’ve noted in some detail the problem which exists on man’s side but have said little or nothing about any problems on God’s side which might need to be reconciled to man before a restoration of the relationship could be achieved.
Even though the NT speaks solely of man being reconciled to God (except in one place where man is urged to be reconciled to God after the reconciliation of the cross has been mentioned - II Cor 5:20), many commentators find it impossible to leave it solely there and go on to describe the solutions which needed to be found that would reconcile God back into friendship with mankind.
There’s some assumed truth in this statement, of course, and Morris observes the situation of a natural breakdown of friendship between two people where the first person may find himself in need of reconciliation with another because of something that the other person has done against him.
In other words, the offence might have destroyed the close relationship - and the second person may be oblivious to the action which had this effect - but the first person can still be spoken of in terms of needing to be reconciled to the other. In this case, if the one who was offended seeks a solution, the second is still spoken of as having been reconciled even when the offence which caused the breakdown of friendship had impinged itself on the first.
We might parallel it in the case of God and mankind as man’s sin causing the alienation and making him in need of reconciliation but the offence being that which affected God and which needed to be dealt with and removed that a reconciliation could transpire. Even though God deals with the problem, it’s not something which mankind might have envisaged as being offensive. As Morris observes
‘...it is not always taken into account that man has no conscious hostility to God. Sinful man is always ready to let bygones be bygones. He is not greatly concerned by those small sins he perceives in himself and he cannot imagine why God should be...There is nothing from his side that demands that there be enmity’
Morris’ position is too simplistic, of course, because a great many men and women know that they stand opposed to what’s right before God and there have been numerous occasions when I’ve heard individuals speak openly against God and His ways. But there’s a good deal of truth here because, until a man or woman comes to a realisation that there’s a need for reconciliation, there can be none - if a man isn’t aware of the offence which has been committed then there can be no desire to remove it.
Therefore, the need for the work of the Holy Spirit in convicting mankind of their sin is vitally important if reconciliation is ever likely to take place (John 16:8, Jude 1:15 - see also my notes on this subject here). Even though individuals might remain oblivious to the destroyed relationship between themselves and God and think of Him as a benevolent Person who looks on everyone as ‘doing their best’ (which is always themselves, I seem to observe, with unerring regularity) except those people who are really bad like murderers and paedophiles (the definition of ‘badness’ always falling outside the type of life that they’re living so that they might justify themselves).
As we saw above, the use of the Greek words for ‘reconciliation’ imply that a personal relationship has been lost - something which it would have been difficult to conceive of amongst the pagan rites which were being performed throughout the civilised world. The proclamation of the Gospel amongst the Greeks and Romans, then, must have come as quite some shock to them seeing as it announced that God could be personally known - and, more, that it was He alone who had personally done the work required in order to secure reconciliation on behalf of mankind.
So Paul is careful to speak of God Himself as achieving it (Rom 5:10, II Cor 5:18, Eph 2:16, Col 1:20 - even though the problem is always spoken of as being man’s) and that it occurred on the cross (Rom 5:10, II Cor 5:19,21, Eph 2:16, Col 1:20,22). As we’ll see as we now turn to consider the solution for the three dilemmas which we outlined above, the singular solution proposed is in the cross of Jesus Christ.
a. Alienated from God
When we looked at the dilemma in which mankind found himself, we noted that there were two notable ‘alienations’ in the OT. The most important or ‘universal’ one was that of separation from the presence of God and the more minor - but which seemed to dominate relationships between religious Jews and the Gentiles - was the separation of the Israelites from the nations round about them through the legislation which came through Moses.
In the new covenant, however, both these boundaries have been removed and Paul refers to both of them in his letters. Firstly, the alienation which existed between Jew and Gentile is described in Eph 2:11-22 where he begins by reminding his readers that, before the proclamation of the Gospel, they were
‘...separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world’
a division which had come about by ‘the circumcision’ (the Jews) but as a logical outworking of the commands of the Mosaic Law. But this isn’t the end of the story and it was never intended to be. The nation which was separated to God to be a pure and distinct people that He might move through and bring salvation to the earth through when the Messiah was to come had failed to perceive from such passages as Is 56:3-8 that acceptance wasn’t by bodily descent but by obedience to the commands of God and that there was coming a day when both Jew and Gentile would be made one (Eph 2:15-16)
‘...by abolishing in His flesh the law of commandments and ordinances that He might create in Himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end’
Now that the Law is fulfilled, it no longer serves the purpose of preserving a people who would be ready to carry the message of the Gospel to the four corners of the earth - rather, the nation had now come to the purpose for which it had been called out of Egypt even though, in the main, they’d rejected the purposes of God for themselves.
Nevertheless, when Jesus provided for the creation of one new man through His work, both Jew and Gentile were seen to be on an equal footing with regards to salvation and it should have served them to realise that the hostility which existed between them had now been brought to a full and final end (Eph 2:16).
Notice here, then, how the alienation which is spoken of (Eph 2:12) is described as having been removed through reconciliation (Eph 2:16) and having been brought about by Jesus’ work on the cross (Eph 2:14-16).
The other alienation/reconciliation passage is in Col 1:21-22 (my italics) where Paul and Timothy note that the Colossians
‘...who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, He has now reconciled in His body of flesh [a Hebraism, it would appear, for ‘physical body’] by His death, in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before Him’
where it’s not the separation away from the covenants and promises which is in mind but acceptability before Him. This, then, hints at the second of the two alienations we looked at earlier where separation from the presence of God came about as a result of mankind’s sin in Adam. The cross is still very much in the picture in the previously cited passage and is given as the reason why reconciliation has now taken place.
Access into God’s presence, therefore, was secured by the work of Jesus on the cross between the sixth and ninth hours (Mtw 27:51 - the rent veil was indicative of the way into God’s presence being opened - see here), Heb 10:19-22 bearing witness to this when it says that
‘...since we have confidence to enter the [place where God dwells] by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which He opened for us through the curtain, that is, through His flesh, and since we have a great High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near...’
Having gone through an exposition of the old sacrificial system and shown that Christ has fulfilled its legal demands, the writer makes the declaration that now, in Christ, the way has been opened into God’s presence through the veil.
That veil of separation, indicative of mankind’s sin and rebellion, is now removed because of the work of the cross. Jesus is considered to be the veil that separated mankind in the sense that, having become sin (II Cor 5:21), He took it upon Himself to be separated from God, to deal with the problem that sin had brought about - so removing it in His own body.
But, having said that the way has now been opened, it doesn’t follow that mankind is automatically there in God’s presence. Freedom of access has been won by Christ for all who want it, but simply having the right of access doesn’t mean that the freedom is being used.
For example, salvation is available to all now that Christ has died and has risen from the dead - but it doesn’t follow that all men are saved because not all men have accepted the sacrifice that was given for them and not all have received it ‘by faith’. And it is ‘by faith’ that men and women enter in to the presence of God - not believing what Christ has done with their minds only, but letting what Christ has done become a part of their lives.
But, concluding, the alienation which came about through sin is now removed because of the work of Jesus Christ who dealt with the nature of the problem - a problem which is the combination and conclusion of the next two problems which are mentioned in Col 1:21 and which follow below.
Reconciliation, then, deals with the root cause of both sin and rebellion and, as a consequence, opens up the way back for mankind to be able to enter in to God’s presence.
b. Hostile in mind
Alienation from God (the previous section) is the result of both hostile thoughts (this section) and evil actions (the next section). Paul is plain here that the hostility or rebellion which once existed in the minds of the Colossians has now been brought to an end by the death of Jesus Christ - that is, God has won a victory which defeated the rebellion.
It’s not just that Jesus needed to remedy those things which men and women do but that He also needed to remedy who they were that they might receive the liberty to be restored and reconciled back into a relationship with God.
To have remedied the things mankind does without bringing a solution to who they are would have very quickly brought them back in to a position of exclusion from God’s presence and in need of God’s cleansing.
Through Adam, there’s inside of us a part that wants to rebel against God and to choose to go our own way regardless of what’s best for our lives. We like to be in control of the pilotage of our ship and to steer ourselves through life using our own insight and strength, rejecting the ways of God whenever and wherever it suits us. It’s this which prompts the thoughts to stray after courses of actions which, although they might be masked as righteous when they appear as actions outside the body, they still have their foundation in rebellion.
The doctrine of the ‘sinful nature’ has, unfortunately, fallen out of fashion along with the rise of humanism which teaches that man is good at heart and a victim of the circumstances that either happen to him or that he finds himself in. But a person who holds to this belief system will never be in a position to see that mankind was in desperate need of a revolutionary solution that needed Jesus Christ to go to the cross on their behalf.
However much we’d like to think of ourselves as good at heart, when we look at what our eyes tell us about the human race, the evidence is not compelling. We see that even children don’t have to be taught to do wrong - this type of behaviour comes naturally and the command ‘no’ is often a great incentive for children not to obey!
This rebellious sinful nature (known also as ‘the flesh’, ‘the old man’ and other varying titles in the NT) cannot submit to God’s Law. If the Law had ever been able to legislate to improve that part of us, to reform it, then there would have been no need for Christ to have had to die on the cross. But, as it is, the sinful nature was crucified with Him (Gal 2:20, Rom 6:6).
When Jesus was nailed there, so too were we - when Jesus died there, so too did we. In order that, by the resurrection from the grave, we might rise to new life and share in His life by faith in the work of God through Him.
We are, therefore, dead by faith to the old way of life (Rom 6:11-12) and yet, at the same time, we find that that old way of life continually tries to rise back up to haunt us and lead us away from obedience to Christ. The christian life is rightly described as a battle where each individual must continually choose to put down the ‘old nature’ until we’re freed totally from it when we die (see the charts in the study on ‘Baptism (in water)’).
Paul urges his readers in Rom 12:2 that they shouldn’t be
‘...conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect’
so that they might not strive after the ways of the world but begin to think differently (and, therefore, act differently) and so do God’s will. Therefore, the believer has two ways of living - either they can (Rom 8:5)
‘...set their minds on the things of the flesh...’
or live in accordance and harmony with the leading of the Holy Spirit and
‘...set their minds on the things of the Spirit’
This is a battle which continues for as long as the believer will live but being ‘born again’ isn’t a matter simply of the cleansing of the externals but of a radical transformation of the internal attitudes and workings of individual men and women so that even their thoughts begin to take on the concerns of doing the will of God where personal aspirations are crushed.
c. Doing evil deeds
Believers are certain about the forgiveness of their sins - indeed, it’s the foundational proclamation of the Gospel that’s often used in evangelistic sermons and the idea of the crucifixion of the old way of life, of the renewing of the mind and of the setting free from spiritual bondage often takes a back seat for that one truth. It’s great to know that, even though a person may respond to the singleness of the provision that’s being offered, they get everything as part of the deal even though they had no idea it was so all-inclusive (a bit like buying a package holiday and thinking all you’re getting is the flight and accommodation but that, when you arrive, you find all your meals and drinks are thrown is as an added bonus - you would have grabbed the deal with both hands had you known the fulness of the package but it comes as a point of great joy when you find out you got more than you were expecting).
The source of evil deeds is dealt with in the cross (see the previous section) so the evil deeds themselves also need dealing with.
By committing sins, mankind makes a separation between himself and God. In Is 59:2 the thought is not so much that the original sin which mankind committed ‘in Adam’ in the Garden that’s made a separation, but the continuing individual rebellion that’s part of each human’s life. Whether we try to justify our actions or not, we still rebel against what is the plain and obvious revelation of God in the world around us and so, literally, push God’s presence away from us (Rom 1:18-32).
But God in Christ was going to take upon Himself the price that needed to be paid in order that His people might be reconciled to Himself. If that original sin - and continuing sins - resulted in alienation from the presence of God, then Jesus, to take the just punishment that each man and woman experiences because of individual sin (partly now but forever upon death), had to be separated from the presence of God. When Jesus cried (Mtw 27:46)
‘My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?’
we see Him separated from the presence of God, suffering the punishment of sin even though He never knew sin by experience (II Cor 5:21). Therefore the OT Scriptures along with the New proclaim the work of Christ in sacrificial language. Isaiah (Is 53:6,8,10,12) states that
‘...the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all...He makes Himself an offering for sin...He shall bear their iniquities...’
while Matthew (Mtw 26:28) quotes Jesus as saying
‘...this is My blood...which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins...’
This verse should be compared with Lev 4:7 and other parallel passages where the blood of the OT sin offering is recorded as being ‘poured out’ at the base of the altar. Had the idea been other than Jesus’ life was an acceptable offering for sin, then the phrase ‘poured out’ would not have been used but, as it is, it directs us to the reality of His work on the cross as a sin offering.
In the letters of Paul, also, we read (Eph 1:7) that
‘In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses...’
and that, in Jesus (Col 1:14)
‘...we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins’
In both these verses, the word-picture ‘redemption’ occurs where the idea is that the work of Christ on the cross ‘buys back’ those who’ve committed sins from the slavery that they’ve sold themselves into by their rebellion (see the notes on ‘Redemption’ for a fuller discussion).
d. Holy, blameless, irreproachable
We’ll look at the second half of Col 1:22b in the following section but we should notice that the three words employed by Paul and Timothy here may well have been intended to have been the solutions to the three problems which were proposed in Col 1:21 (alienation, hostility and evil actions) though the parallels have to be a little contrived to make them fit!
Holiness speaks of separation, a strange concept to use when one has just talked about the unbeliever’s dilemma of being alienated or separated from God and yet of now having been reconciled back into union with Him. One would have expected marriage terminology to have been employed at this juncture but, when used of a believer, holiness speaks of both a separation from and a separation to - that is, if alienation from God’s presence has now been remedied, it’s fitting that the believer should be thought of as both separated from sin and the old way of living through the crucifixion with Jesus Christ on the cross and, at the same time, separated to God to serve and obey only Him through the resurrection and ascension - a separation which also implies union. Being ‘holy’, therefore, could be considered to be the antithesis of having been alienated.
The word ‘blameless’ in the Greek (Strongs Greek number 299) means more literally ‘without blemish’ and will be dealt with in the following section, but we should note that it can be taken to describe the state of not sinning as being a present reality in the lives of the believers because Jesus has perfected those who trust in Him, making them whole through the completed work of the cross.
That believers are not yet in reality perfect is also equally true but the way of life which finds acceptance before God is one which is exemplified by a life of obedience where the earthly desires and selfish will are subjugated to obey the Father. As such, it can be used to speak of a believer who has been set free from the open hostility which sought to carry out personal desires and aspirations, so opposing the rule and will of God. It could, therefore, be used as the opposite of the hostility of the mind mentioned as the second of the three problems in Col 1:21.
Finally, the word for ‘irreproachable’ (Strongs Greek number 410) means, according to Vines, that
‘...nothing can be laid to one’s charge...it implies not merely acquittal but the absence of even a charge or accusation against a person’
and was used in a non-religious sense in everyday life according to Kittels to denote the person who was ‘guiltless’ because there was nothing which had been done wrong. It, therefore, describes the state of being considered to be in a position of not having sinned, a state that is primarily concerned with the past. It is because Jesus Christ has paid the price for a man’s sins that they can be considered as ‘sinless’ or ‘justified’ (see here).
Again, the parallel seems to be with the ‘evil deeds’ of Col 1:21 where the solution of paying the price has left the believer in the state of being considered righteous by the Father - not because of the striving of the individual concerned but because of the work of Jesus on the cross.
Not only can these three ‘end state’ words (Col 1:22) find a parallel in the ‘initial state’ words (Col 1:21) as being the target of God’s work of reconciliation, but they occur in the same order (it was a five to one chance that they would - can you tell that I was a betting office manager before I became a believer?!) which seems to suggest that Paul and Timothy intend for them to be taken as antithetical descriptions.
As I’ve said above, the parallels might be a little contrived, but that there’s similarities should point us toward the possibility that the words being employed here were carefully considered before they were used in the letter.
The allusion to OT sacrifice
We’ve seen at the close of above article on ‘Reconciliation’ that the three descriptive words holy, blameless and irreproachable can each be used as the state of transformation from the three pre-cross states of being estranged, hostile in mind and doing evil deeds. This appears to be the best way to envisage the statements so that both verses tie in as one complete whole explaining what Jesus has done in the Colossians’ lives.
However, there may also be an allusion to the OT sacrificial system in the last line of this verse - but just how deep Paul and Timothy’s perception of it was is open to question for it’s not unreasonable to assume that the authors simply used the words which were the most logical and that it’s only ourselves who look carefully at the words and how they were used elsewhere who identify an alternative meaning.
Colwright is possibly right when he notes that
‘Paul may...be hinting at a sacrificial metaphor, though it could hardly be fully stated since it would imply that God was offering a sacrifice to Himself. Better, therefore, to leave it as a hint’
Nevertheless, it’s worth a mention simply because it’s not out of step with other passages in the NT and, as we’ll see below, Colwright’s perception of what it means needn’t be taken as the only explanation of what it might be intended to mean.
The parallel and similarities fall into two main categories.
1. The sacrifice
The verb translated ‘to present [you]’ (Strongs Greek number 3936) means literally ‘to set by’ in a variety of contexts but the same word is employed in Rom 12:1 (my italics) where Paul writes
‘I appeal to you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God’
The language is strongly indicative of the OT sacrifice in the Mosaic Law (see also II Cor 4:14, 11:2, Eph 5:27, Col 1:28) and, in Lev 16:7, referring to the sacrifices of the Day of Atonement, it informs us that
‘...he shall take the two goats and set them [AV ‘present them’] before YHWH...’
or Lev 1:5 (see also Lev 1:3) concerning the burnt offering that
‘...Aaron’s sons the priests shall present the blood...’
In the sacrificial ordinances, the sacrifice was always presented to YHWH and, with regard to the animals, it was the blood which was brought near and offered as an offering and an atonement.
Not only this word, however, but the Greek word translated ‘blameless’ (Strongs Greek number 299) is also indicative of the sacrificial system where it more rightly means ‘without blemish’. Kittels observes that
‘It is a cultic term in the LXX, denoting the physical perfection of the...offering’
I Peter 1:19 uses the word to speak of the perfection of Jesus
‘...like that of a lamb without blemish or spot...’
where the sacrificial system - and more especially, Passover - is in view. Probably more significant is Heb 9:14 where Jesus is spoken as having
‘...offered himself without blemish to God...’
and, even though the first of the Greek words noted above isn’t used, the idea of the presentation for acceptance is here which brings both concepts together. The language, therefore, is that of the OT sacrificial legislation (Lev 1:3,10, 3:1,6, 4:3,23,28,32, 5:15,18, 6:6) and also of the Passover regulations (Ex 12:5).
Offerings to YHWH were to be ‘without blemish’, the pick of the flock and to withhold the best was considered to be an insult to YHWH (Mal 1:6-14).
There may also be an allusion in the words ‘before Him’ which is really joined to the words ‘to present [you]’. The OT offering is presented to God before His presence. That is, God’s presence resided in the Holy of Holies so that each sacrifice was offered ‘before YHWH’ like a subject comes to give tribute and honour to an earthly king and lays his gift at his feet or before him.
The word ‘holy’ also means what’s separated and, in the context of the sacrificial system, was used to refer to the Lord’s portion of the offering which was specifically given over to Him (Lev 2:3,10) but the word is such a commonly used one in the Mosaic Law to describe all types of objects and people which are set apart to God that it says very little by its inclusion here.
But there’s certainly the possibility (when all these words are considered) that Paul and Timothy picture the believer as a type of offering to God that’s being presented before His presence. However, the language mustn’t be pressed too literally to the point where Jesus is seen as offering the believer as a sacrifice to the Father but, rather, that having done the work of reconciliation, He’s able to present them to Him as being without blemish or defect, a life that’s a ‘pleasing odour’ (Lev 1:9), a life that will ‘be accepted’ (Lev 1:3).
Jesus’ work is the guarantee and only justification that man has that he’ll be received into the presence of the Father on the final day when all stand before Him.
Though Jesus is the totally sufficient once-for-all sacrifice for mankind, there’s the parallel truth in a believer’s life of presenting himself as a ‘living sacrifice’ (Rom 12:1), being dead (because of the sacrifice and application of the cross) to all that is opposed to God, and alive (because of the resurrection) to all that pleases Him (Rom 6:11). A life lived in His service, therefore, is one lived in the reality of the cross and is similarly both ‘a pleasing odour’ and ‘acceptable’ to Him - yet it’s only Jesus’ sacrifice which makes the believer’s sacrifice acceptable.
Having said this, we may have started out with a wrong premise for Col 1:22 clearly says not that the believer now presents Himself to the Father but that Jesus, having reconciled believers back into a relationship with God, presents those redeemed before the presence of God.
In other words, there’s no thought of self-presentation but, in the words of Colbrien
‘God is thus regarded not as a judge [who assesses the sufficiency of the offering we make] but as the “examiner”...who inspects the sacrifices to make sure they are unblemished...’
That is, the examination is to determine whether the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is being presented or whether it’s self-effort and works of the flesh to gain acceptance. This is more like the sense of the passage and, if sacrificial language is accepted as having been intended by Paul and Timothy, this is the more likely interpretation.
2. The minister
Having said what we have about the sacrifices of the OT and how they seem to be needed to give background to the language employed, we should also note that, when the Greek words noted above are looked at again, they point towards a more accurate interpretation of the believer as being the type of a levitical priest rather than the sacrifice itself.
The first word we considered (Strongs Greek number 3936) is apparently never used in the LXX to translate the sacrificial words which we cited. It’s certainly true that Rom 12:1 uses the word in the clear context of such a system but, if the word was allowed to stand on its own, it wouldn’t be to the sacrifices that attention would be drawn but to the priests who offered them.
In Deut 10:8 and Ex 34:5, for example, the word is employed in the LXX of the priests who stand in the presence of God to wait upon and minister to YHWH. Kittels (my italics) observes that
‘The usual thoughts are those of being present and helping. The religious sense rests on the practice at royal courts where service implies dignity but also dependence’
so that it’s more of a word which would be applied to men and women than to inanimate objects. It’s more rightly used, therefore, of the offerer rather than the offering.
Not only is this word used of the priests’ service but Kittels also notes that the second of the words (Strongs Greek number 299) is not only used of the offering but also of the offerer.
It would seem more fitting, then, that the idea of service before God is in mind where access into God’s presence (which has been secured by Jesus’ work of reconciliation) has come about.
However, the opening clause of Col 1:23 which reads that the presentation before the Father will take place
‘...provided that you continue in the faith...’
pointing forward to a future day rather than back to the point in time when the Colossians first believed. That is, we’re looking at an event which has both taken place in history (the cross) and been applied to men and women’s lives (initial conversion) but which has the consequence of gaining admittance into the final outworking of the Kingdom on the basis of Christ’s work and by continued perseverance in the faith.
Believers are, then, seen as the ministers of the coming Kingdom who’ve secured entrance by God’s grace and not by self-effort - but who need to stand firm in their new lifestyle and devotion to maintain what’s been given them.
Continuing in the faith
We come to one of the most controversial of passages in the NT which the reader may wonder at. After all, isn’t what Paul and Timothy write here straightforward and without the need for a radical interpretation which makes it seem other than what the English translations make it out to say?
I know that, when I first became a follower of Christ, I read the Bible morning, noon and night - when I got up before I went to work, on the packed commuter train into central London, at work during the slack morning periods (don’t forget, I was a betting office manager and racing didn’t start til around 1pm in those days), during lunch, on the train home and during the evening.
Indeed, I found the entire set up of church meetings to be somewhat of a distraction! That might sound really weird, I know, but so little actually happened in the meetings for the first six months or so that I wouldn’t be surprised if some believers shrivelled up and died there - I know the fellowship had more deaths than marriages. And even fewer births, too.
Anyway, I digress. What I’m trying to say is that I was well into learning what the Bible had to say long before I was told what it meant from the pulpit and accepting man’s interpretation in its entirety. There were still things about eschatology which I learnt from those around me and which I had to seriously revise when I realised that their timescale and interpretation didn’t work but, on the whole, what I was reading changed what I’d believed as an unbeliever and laid a foundation in my own life which sprung out of the Scriptures and not from the pulpit.
That doesn’t mean I’m right in whatever I put down on paper - or in what you read on the web - I mention it only to illustrate the point that the plain and obvious meaning of ‘difficult’ texts like the one at which we’ve now arrived were that the believer had to be focused resolutely to continue in the Way prepared for Him and not to shift one way or the other - that, although the completed work was done by Jesus, the believer still had to apply himself to it and hold fast to all that came from God until the day he died or the day when Jesus returned.
I shan’t go into the various maxims which were offered on both sides of the argument which either spoke of the need for continuance or of the impossibility of throwing away what had once been acknowledged and accepted, for they all seem futile. For me there was never a point of doubt because of the plain and simple meaning of what the Scriptures had to say.
So, when Paul and Timothy wrote in Col 1:23 that the believers should
‘...continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel which you heard...’
I naturally accepted it as a warning to persevere. Having now read the commentators on this passage, however, I wonder at the way the simple words have been reinterpreted in the light of belief rather than for the Scriptures to allow a change of personal belief. Indeed, it’s obvious from various statements that personal salvation cannot be conceived of as able to be thrown back in God’s face once received for Colwright (my italics) observes that
‘...genuine faith is assured of continuing to the end. From the human point of view, christians discover whether their faith is of the genuine sort only by patient perseverance...’
and Colbruce (identically recorded in Colbrien) puts it more succinctly that
‘Continuance is the test of reality’
In other words, the believer knows if they’re saved because they will persevere - and those who don’t persevere are shown to be the ones who weren’t ever saved in the first place! It also means that a believer’s ‘assurance’ that the work of Christ is sufficient for His own personal dilemma - and that the Father has accepted him on the basis of that work - is irrelevant for it’s only continuation in the Way that proves salvation.
So why should Paul and Timothy encourage the Colossians to persevere to a completion if perseverance is inevitable if they have ‘faith’? Why not rather encourage the believers to ensure that they really are saved and in a right relationship with God so that perseverance might come as part and parcel of the deal? The problem is like the old adage of putting the cart before the horse. Colbrien addresses the issue by writing that
‘If it is true that the saints will persevere to the end, then it is equally true that the saints must persevere to the end’
seeing Paul’s exhortation to be solely a confession of what must inevitably take place. And also that one of Paul’s methods that he uses to ensure that believers
‘...do not fall into a state of false security is to stir them up with warnings such as this’
In other words, Paul is only echoing what they will inevitably experience so that they might be encouraged to persevere...er...inevitably. Personally, I don’t see any sense in it at all and it seems to be much more faithful to the Scripture to accept the exhortation also as a warning that they might be unswerving in their commitment to press onwards until their final day on earth.
Colbrien, however, does point out an interesting inference from the first two words employed in the verse and which are rendered by the RSV ‘provided that’ in which he states that
‘The Greek construction...does not express doubt...[and that it] would appear from their contexts to denote confidence’
but it’s quite some way from here to the place which makes Paul’s words appear superfluous if the faithful can be assured that their perseverance won’t be in doubt. Though the authors may feel confident and certain about the continuing faithfulness of the Colossian fellowship, it doesn’t imply that there’s a certain touchdown just because the player’s got hold of the ball. The phrase might be taken to indicate confidence but it can’t be pressed at this point to denote a condition that denies the possibility of a falling away from devotion to Jesus Christ.
Having said all that, we should move on to briefly consider the relevancy of the exhortation in the context of the proclamation of the Gospel. We should, perhaps, note that salvation has three ‘tenses’.
There’s no doubt that it’s correct to say that a believer has been/was saved when they first came to exercise faith in the completed work of Christ on their behalf (Acts 2:21, 2:47, Eph 2:8, II Cor 6:2, II Tim 1:8-9, Titus 3:3-5) but salvation (that is, to be ‘saved’) isn’t only a once-for-all event in the life of an individual.
The Bible also speaks of believers ‘being saved’ (I Cor 1:18 - see also Phil 1:6, 2:12-13), of being changed from one degree of glory into another (II Cor 3:18) - and of being saved at a future time (Rom 5:9, 13:11, Heb 9:28, Mtw 24:13, I Peter 1:9).
A believer is someone, then, who was saved (past), is being saved (present) and who will be saved (future). That’s why there are a number of warnings given to the Church that believers must continue in the exercising of their faith until the day of death, of persevering in the Way and of not turning back to that manner of life that was experienced before they came to know Jesus Christ. It isn’t that the believer will only be accepted by God when they’ve become ‘perfect’ in reality but that they’re already considered perfect by the work of the cross and, even if they die before the full work of sanctification is complete, they’ll still be saved and changed into everything that they should be, come the resurrection.
Therefore, when the apostolic band passed through the lands where they’d previously preached the Gospel (Acts 14:22), they exhorted them
‘...to continue in the faith’
as they do here in Col 1:23. There’s no point in exhorting believers to continue if, once they’re first saved, they always remain saved as a consequence of their salvation (noted above) or if those who are predestined to be saved have no choice in the matter and cannot turn their backs on the Way (see my notes where I’ve explained the three concepts of Foreknowledge, Freewill and Predestination and shown how they interrelate). The point is, rather, that (I Peter 1:9)
‘...as the outcome of your faith, you obtain the salvation of your souls’
The believer is to run with perseverance in their lives (Heb 12:1), pressing onwards for the right to take part in the resurrection from the grave (Phil 3:12,14), working out their own individual salvation to completion (Phil 2:12).
The life of the believer is also compared to an athletic race that must be completed in order to receive the promised prize. As if competing in a marathon, Paul notes (Phil 3:14) that he presses on
‘...toward the goal for the prize...’
and observes (I Cor 9:24) that
‘...in a race all the runners compete but only one receives the prize...run that you may obtain it...’
At the end of his life, Paul could say with full conviction that he’d completed the full course of the race (II Tim 4:7-8 - my italics) and that
‘Henceforth [from this time forward] there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness...’
It’s true to say, therefore, that not only can a man only be saved because of Jesus’ work but that the work which is begun upon initial conversion must continue to be outworked in a convert’s life. The response of an individual to the new creation within is vitally important that the follower might show unswerving commitment to Jesus and the Gospel.
This response is so tied in with the ‘hymn’ of Col 1:15-20 because, unless it’s realised that the new birth is also the start of the new creation, one might misconstrue it to be a once-for-all event that needs no work on the part of the believer.
Paul’s exhortation is phrased with words which speak of stability, steadfastness and an unshifting reliance upon the hope of the Gospel. These are indicative of a house which remains solid upon a rock when adverse conditions come to either blow it or wash it away.
It’s therefore not without parallel in the teachings of Jesus in Mtw 7:24-27 though there the idea is of a choice between hearing and doing whereas here the idea is of staying immovable when faithfulness has already been exemplified.
To try and put this terminology into real substance would, no matter how long the list, be an attempt at limiting its scope. We might think of temptations of the flesh, of false doctrine, of tribulation or of pagan religious rites and still not address the particular problem which present day man finds confronting him. It’s best to leave the words to refer to as wide a range as possible and simply note that the Colossians were being exhorted to continue in the faith no matter what was to come against them.
Colbrien’s summation of it being a
‘...call to steadfastness in the face of the danger of being drawn away from the apostolic Gospel’
probably says it as succinctly as is possible.
For an explanation of the phrase ‘the hope of the Gospel’ see my notes on Col 1:5 where the same idea appears to be present.
We need to first straighten out the translation of the end of Col 1:23 before we can attempt an interpretation. The RSV refers to the Gospel
‘...which has been preached to every creature under Heaven...’
even though the Greek seems to run
‘...which has been preached in all Creation under Heaven...’
referring rather to the scope of the proclamation with regard to geographical location than to the extent to which living beings have heard. It’s the area covered by the message of the Gospel that’s in mind and not the quantity of individuals that have heard the proclamation. If ‘every creature’ was claimed as having been reached with the message of the Gospel, we might reasonably expect a 100% saturation of the message to all men and, if ‘creature’ is meant to be taken literally, who told the African elephants?
The phrase is, therefore, roughly equivalent to what’s meant in English by ‘throughout the world’ where Colbrien notes that the prefix ‘en’ which is translated ‘in’ in my rendering of the phrase above
‘...signifies the location where the preaching takes place...’
Whether it might be correct to give it a similar application to the present day phrase is difficult to imagine but it would certainly solve the problem posed by Paul’s statement. We might say that
‘Coca-Cola is sold throughout the world’
but none of us (I hope) would imagine that, if they were to make it to the north pole, there’d be a little kiosk serving refrigerated bottles. Neither that the statement should mean that every retail outlet had their own supply of Coca-Cola that they were selling to all who wanted to buy. Rather, it means that there is at least a representative sales outlet in each recognised location of the world (whether it be a city a region, a country or a continent - dependent on the extent in which the phrase is meant to be taken).
So, too, we might take Paul’s words to mean that every region or location has had the Gospel preached in their area - but even this is not without its problems for it seems plain enough that, at that time, the world hadn’t yet been reached with the Gospel (see my notes on Matthew chapter 24 in Part 2 Section 5a).
Therefore, we have to ask the question as to what way Paul could claim that the Gospel (or, better, ‘the hope of the Gospel’ which is the subject of the preaching if the opening words of Col 1:23 are accepted as being the subject of the assertion) has been preached in all Creation under Heaven?
That the interpretation is a difficult one is certain from a consideration of the commentators. Either they deal with all the possibilities which confront them (as Colwright) or they begin to give an explanation and then change the subject so as not to commit themselves to decide one way or the other (as Colbrien)! As you’re probably aware, a good expositor is one who, seeing the problem, ignores it completely (only kidding - it just appears that way)!
There are problems with each and every solution, it appears to me, and so I only offer the following as a possibility. The first thing to notice is that Paul is speaking about the hope of the Gospel and not the Gospel message itself. As we saw on Col 1:3-5a, this phrase refers specifically to the resurrection from the dead and the release from bondage and decay that the Creation will experience on that day when it takes place.
Paul and Timothy have already been addressing the issue of the Creation and Jesus as the Creator in Col 1:15-20 and it seems best to take an interpretation which uses this as its basis. This hope, then, was preached in Christ when He rose from the grave, a single event that proclaims the truth of the future resurrection of all believers. In support of this, Colwright observes that
‘The aorist tense should strictly speaking be translated not “that has been preached” but “that was preached”...God has in Jesus Christ proclaimed once and for all that the world which He made has been reconciled to Him’
while JFB observes that the phrase ‘was preached’ means
‘...not merely “is being preached” but “has been actually, as an accomplished fact, preached”’
Paul’s statement then looks back to an event in history which showed all Creation that the hope of the restoration of all things would take place at a future time. This hope of the Gospel was preached in Jesus Christ to all Creation when He rose from the dead on the third day. This appears to be the proclamation which is being envisaged as now being carried by His ministers with them as they travel throughout the earth.
Colwright, although accepting that Paul must be referring to an event, prefers rather to speak of God announcing the Gospel to all Creation (he prefers ‘to every creature’) in principle, going on to write that
‘...God has in Jesus Christ proclaimed once and for all that the world which He made has been reconciled to Him. His heralds, scurrying off to the ends of the earth with the news are simply agents...of this one antecedent authoritative proclamation’
Personally, I think the statement demands a single event in which the proclamation of the hope can be said to have occurred and, therefore, look to the resurrection from the grave as the occasion when the evidence was presented that the decay of the created order wasn’t the end of the story.
Perhaps Paul could have been a bit plainer and less ambiguous with his statements at this point? But the reason for such a bold statement seems to be that the universality of the message must be stated with certainty and finality so that all other religions and beliefs can be seen to be limited in scope and application.
The Gospel is seen not to be something that originated as a localised theology in the backwaters of a nation but becomes universal in scope (see also Col 1:20), extending its influence throughout the world. It doesn’t promote the worship of a local pagan deity, limited in scope to a specific region but it announces the worship of the Deity, the Creator of all things (see Col 1:15-17) and is therefore the only possible message for the world.
Such is the Gospel that these ‘insignificant’ believers have received in Colossae (which had lost its significance and importance in the conurbation of Laodicea, Hierapolis and Colossae due to the former cities’ growth - see my notes here) in which they’re to stand securely until the Day of Jesus Christ.
Any believer’s importance in the world’s eyes or their residence within an influential part of society is worthless - their standing lies in their steadfastness in the Way of the Gospel.
I hate the title ‘minister’ - I make no apologies for doing so. It seems to mark a distinction between those believers who are ‘less than’ ministry potential and elevate those with the title into a position of unequalled authority where their will holds pre-eminence.
And all Paul is saying here is that he’s become a servant of what was proclaimed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, both in word and in demonstration of power. A minister of a meal (that is, a waiter) doesn’t prepare and make the food but brings it from one who has to one who is expecting to eat. Similarly, a minister of the Gospel takes the prepared food available in Christ (His death, resurrection and ascension) and brings it to the people who need nourishment - the resurrection already proclaimed in Christ’s triumph over death is ministered to others by the diakonos, the minister, of God (II Cor 5:19).
Neither does Paul envisage himself as being a minister through any cleverness on his part or through a man-made course or procedure which he’s undergone. Rather, he speaks of being a minister of the Gospel (Eph 3:7)
‘...according to the gift of God’s grace which was given me by the working of His power’
and (Col 1:25)
‘...according to the divine office [that is, the appointment of God] which was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known’
And he also ‘elevates’ both Epaphras and Tychicus in this letter by labelling them as fellow ministers of the truth (Co 1:7, 4:7) showing that anyone who is entrusted with the message of the hope of the Gospel is one who should be considered as one of God’s ministers - the implication also being that a titular position of ‘minister’ could only ever be justified if God’s appointment, evidenced by an apostolic ministry, was certain.
Believers, then, should all be counted as having the potential of being ministers of what has already been accomplished, enforcers of the victory already won. Nothing that a believer ministers comes from what is happening or will happen - it’s already an accomplished fact and a completed work. Reconciliation with God the Father was achieved in Christ, but the ministry of that reconciliation must still take place through His servants and throughout the world.
The believer, then, proclaims what has already been proclaimed in the cross and resurrection and proclaims to others what has already been proclaimed to themselves. When a follower ministers, they minister the past, bringing life to the present and hope for the future.
Two to one
It may be significant that, at the end of this long sentence in the Greek (Col 1:9-23), Paul addresses the Colossians individually by speaking of himself as becoming a minister of the Gospel whereas the salutation of the letter has stated plainly that the letter had co-authorship along with Timothy (Col 1:1).
It’s not unreasonable, therefore, to assume that definitely at this point the co-authorship ceases and that Paul now continues on his own to the end of the letter. A brief look at some of the words used also helps us to draw a line here as the last place when co-authorship could have taken place.
The personal references begin from this verse onwards with the words ‘I’ (Col 1:23,24,25,29, 2:1,4,5, 4:3,4,8,13,18), ‘my’ (Col 1:24, 2:1, 4:7,10,11,15,18) and ‘me’ (Col 1:25,29, 4:11) all occurring for the first time and continuing to the end of the letter (though chapter 3 lacks any personal reference at all).
The references which would denote co-authorship are a little less easy to be definite about but of the words ‘we’ (Col 1:3,4,9,14,28, 4:8), ‘us’ (Col 1:8,12,13, 2:13,14, 4:3) and ‘our’ (Col 1:1,2,3,7, 2:13, 3:4), only Col 1:3,4,7,8,9 seem to need to refer to Paul and Timothy. Even though ‘we’ occurs prior to Col 1:23 in Col 1:14, the reference there seems to be to the entire body of believers as it probably does with the ‘us’ of Col 1:12,13,2:13,14 and the ‘our’ of Col 1:1,2, 2:13, 3:4.
The apostolic band may also be in mind when the words are used in Col 1:28, 4:3,8.
Simply then, it would appear that single authorship should be assumed from Col 1:23 onwards (even though it may have occurred before, even in the midst of the long sentence which runs from Col 1:9). Why this took place is impossible to determine, partly because we have no way of knowing what the circumstances were surrounding the composition of these letters.
For instance, were they written over several days because access to the prisoner was limited? Did they wait until the ‘inspiration’ flowed to commit something to parchment? Did Paul stop from dictation as and when different believers came to visit him?
These are all things about which I’d love to have an answer but which there aren’t indications in the letters for us to make a reasonable guess. All that can be said at this point, however, is that co-authorship seems to have ended and Paul is left to finish off the letter on his own.
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