18 Thus far Paul has set forth the doctrine of Christ in terms which he shares with other NT writers—terms which, in fact, may have belonged to a widespread Christian catechesis or confession, even if he stamps them with the imprint of his own experience and mind. But now he goes on to make a contribution to apostolic christology which is distinctively his own. This Christ, he says, “is also the head of the body, the church.”
Those who recognize vv. 15–20 as a pre-Pauline hymn incorporated into the argument of this letter believe, for the most part, that “the church” is a gloss added by the writer of the letter to make plain the sense in which “the body” is to be understood (which may be so), and many think that in the original form of the hymn the body was the kosmos. This letter certainly presents Christ as head of the kosmos in the sense that he is its creator and ruler—head, in particular, “of every principality and power” (Col. 2:10). But when head and body are used as correlative terms, the physiological relation is in the foreground, and it is not established that the kosmos was ever envisaged as the body of Christ in this sense.
The use of the body as a figure for the common life and interdependence of a political or social group was not unknown in antiquity. It finds classical expression in the fable of Menenius Agrippa, who persuaded the seceding plebeians of Rome to return and live among the patricians on the ground that, if the other parts of the body conspired to starve the belly because it did no work, they would soon find themselves suffering in consequence. Again, Stoicism viewed the divine power as the world-soul, informing the material universe as the individual soul informs the body130—a view succinctly summed up in Alexander Pope’s couplet:
All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body Nature is, and God the soul.
But we should look elsewhere for the source of Paul’s presentation of the church as not merely a body corporate but as the body of Christ—“one in Christ” (Rom. 12:5).
The first place (in chronological order) where Paul speaks of the church in this way is 1 Cor. 12:12–27. This section opens with the words: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all watered with one Spirit.” And it is summed up at the end (in v. 27) by the statement: “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it.” In these words Paul is concerned to impress on the Corinthian Christians the fact that, as fellow-members of the body of Christ, they have mutual duties and common interests which must not be neglected.
A year or two later, in Rom. 12:4–5, he declares that “as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” Paul is here thinking of the variety of services rendered by the diverse members of the church, in accordance with their respective abilities, all together helping to build up the community to which they all belong.
In those earlier letters, where the terminology of the body and its constituent parts is used to express the mutual relations and obligations of church members, Christ is not said to be head of the body: the head is mentioned incidentally as one among many members of the body (1 Cor. 12:21). But in this letter (and also in Ephesians) Christ as head bears a unique relation to the church as his body.
The word “head” is used in a variety of figurative senses. Where it is used in relation to “body,” one naturally thinks of the organic connection of head and body, but even here it is relevant to bear in mind special senses given to “head” in Paul’s writings. Outstanding among these special senses is that found in 1 Cor. 11:3, where Paul teaches that “the head of every man is Christ, woman’s head is man, and Christ’s head is God.” In these three clauses “head” is best understood as “source” or “origin” (the statement that “woman’s head is man” being a reference to the formation of Eve from Adam’s side in Gen. 2:21–22). In our present text, where Christ is said to be “the head of the body, the church,” there is, over and above the obvious organic relationship of body and head, the thought that Christ is the source of the church’s life, and probably also (in accordance with another figurative sense of “head”) the thought that he is the church’s lord.
So far as the organic relationship is concerned, Christ and his people are viewed together as a living entity: Christ is the head, supplying life and exercising control and direction; his people are his body, individually his limbs and organs, under his control, obeying his direction, performing his work. And the life which animates the whole is his risen life, which he shares with his people.
When attention is paid to the way in which Paul develops the concept of the church as the body of Christ, it is improbable that he was indebted for the concept to Stoic thought, and still more improbable that he was influenced by gnostic ideas.137 He would have been acquainted with rabbinical speculation which pictured all humanity as members of Adam, and we know how he points the antithesis between being “in Adam” and being “in Christ.”139 But we need not think that his portrayal of all believers as members of one body, and that the body of Christ, was formed on the analogy of this kind of speculation. Rather, the rabbinical speculation and Paul’s portrayal are both rooted in the older Hebrew way of thinking which has commonly been called “corporate personality.” Men and women, by natural birth, share the life of Adam (whose name means “mankind”) and thus may be described as “in Adam”; heirs of the new creation, by spiritual rebirth, share the risen life of Christ (the “second man”) and so are “in Christ.” It is this existence “in Christ” that is given vivid expression in Paul’s presentation of the church as the body of Christ.141 The germ of this conception in Paul’s mind may indeed be found in the words of Christ which he heard on the Damascus road—words in which the risen Christ identified himself with his followers: “why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4; 22:7; 26:14).
The source of the conception, however, is less important than Paul’s intention in using it. He uses it when he wishes to bring out certain aspects of the relation between church members, or between the church and Christ; when he wishes to bring out certain other aspects, he uses other terminology. From other points of view, for example, the church is thought of as the bride of Christ, or as the building of which he is either the foundation or the chief cornerstone,144 and so on. Some theologians, indeed, treat the conception of the church as the body of Christ differently from those other conceptions, admitting that they are metaphorical while insisting that the term “body of Christ” is to be taken “ontologically and realistically.”
But if they were right, one could go on to make assertions about the church’s relation to Christ, on the analogy of the relation which the human body, with its parts and their functions, bears to the head, beyond what Paul has to say. It is better to recognize that Paul speaks of the church as the body of Christ for certain well-defined purposes, and to follow his example in using such language for these same purposes. It can be appreciated that those presentations which bring out the vital relation between Christ and the church are more adequate than others (there is no organic relation between a building and its foundation-stone or coping stone); for this reason the head/body and husband/wife analogies have an especially firm grasp on reality.
Thus, in speaking of the church as the body of Christ, one thinks of it as vitalized by his abiding presence with it and his risen life in it; one thinks of it as energized by his power; one may even (without transgressing legitimate bounds) think of it as the instrument through which he carries on his work on earth. But to think of it as an extension of his incarnation is to exceed the limits which the Pauline exposition of the body permits. There is substance in the argument that his incarnation cannot be dissociated from his atoning sacrifice, and that the sacrifice offered once for all can have no “extension” in the life of the church. Moreover, the view of the church as the extension of his incarnation takes insufficient account of the contrast between his sinlessness and the church’s sinfulness.
The conception of the church as the body of Christ helps us to understand how Paul can not only speak of believers as being “in Christ” but also of Christ as being in them. They are “in Christ” as members of his body, “baptized into Christ” (Gal. 3:27; cf. Rom. 6:3); he is in them because it is his risen life that animates them. Similarly, in the organic analogy of John 15:1–8, the branches are in the vine and the vine at the same time is in the branches.
(3) Second Main Strophe (1:18b–20)
It is the risen Christ who is head of the body which is the church. In resurrection as well as in creation he receives the titles “the beginning” and “the firstborn.”151 His resurrection marked his triumph over all the forces that held men and women in bondage. That first Easter morning saw the dawn of a new hope for humanity.153 Now Christ is “the firstborn among many brethren”; he is “the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep”;155 his own resurrection is the harbinger of the great resurrection-harvest of his people. But the coming resurrection is anticipated here and now by those who know him as the resurrection and the life and enjoy eternal life through their participation in him. He who has been “designated Son of God in power … by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4) exercises primacy in the new creation as well as in the old; the divine purpose is thus fulfilled “that he might be preeminent in all things.”158
19 The statement that God decreed the preeminence of Christ over every order of being is now repeated in different terms—terms which may have been calculated to appeal with peculiar force to the Colossian Christians in their present situation. “In him it was decreed that all the fullness should take up residence.” The impersonal “it was decreed” has been adopted as a provisional rendering. But the Greek verb is not impersonal: it means “decreed,” “was well pleased” and implies a subject. Then who or what was well pleased? When the good pleasure or will is God’s, there is precedent for the omission of the explicit name of God: “he was well pleased” would mean “God was well pleased” (cf. KJV: “it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell”). On the other hand, the clause as it stands offers an explicit subject for the verb: “the fullness was well pleased to take up residence in him” (cf. RSV: “in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell”).159 One cannot decide certainly whether “God” or “the fullness” is the more probable subject: P. Benoit, for example, prefers to take “God” as the subject; E. Käsemann declares this construction “not permissible” (on exegetical and theological, not on grammatical, grounds).161 Before it can even be considered which of the two constructions is the more probable, the meaning of “fullness” in this clause must be considered. So far as the letter-writer’s intention is concerned, its meaning is not in doubt: the sense is repeated more fully in Col. 2:9: “it is in him [i.e., in Christ] that all the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form.” If then Col. 1:19 is construed to mean that “in him all the fullness of deity was well pleased to take up residence” (that is, presumably, at his exaltation), this is tantamount to saying that God himself (RSV “all the fulness of God”) was pleased to dwell in him. There is then no substantial difference in meaning between the two constructions.
The Greek word translated “fullness” (plērōma) is one that Paul and other NT writers use in a variety of senses. The peculiar force of its use here has been thought to lie in its probable employment in a technical sense by the heretical teachers at Colossae. In the mid-second century the word was used by Gnostics of the Valentinian school to denote the totality of aeons (divine entities or emanations),163 and it is conceivable that it bore some such meaning in incipient forms of gnosticism in the mid-first century. We must constantly remind ourselves that we have no knowledge of the Colossian heresy apart from inferences drawn as cautiously as possible from the argument and wording of this letter, but it would make sense in the present context if the heresy envisaged powers intermediate between the supreme God and the world of humanity, so that any communication between God and the world, in either direction, had to pass through the spheres in which those powers exercised control. Those who thought in this way would be careful to treat those powers with becoming respect. But the whole of this theosophical apparatus is undermined here in one simple, direct affirmation: the totality of divine essence and power is resident in Christ. He is the one, all-sufficient intermediary between God and the world of humanity, and all the attributes of God—his spirit, word, wisdom, and glory—are disclosed in him.
20 It was God’s good pleasure, moreover, to reconcile all things to himself165 through Christ. The fullness of the divine energy is manifested in Christ in the work of reconciliation as well as in that of creation. In the words that follow (vv. 21–22) this reconciling activity is applied particularly to redeemed humanity, but here its universal reference comes first into view. In reconciliation as in creation the work of Christ has a cosmic significance: it is God’s eternal purpose (as it is put in Eph. 1:10) that all things should be summed up in him.
If “all things,” in heaven and on earth, were created through him (v. 16), and yet “all things”—“whether the things on earth or those in heaven”—have to be reconciled to God through him, it follows that all things have been estranged from their Creator. In Rom. 8:19–23 Paul speaks of the creation as involuntarily “subjected to futility” but as destined to “be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” Since the liberty of the children of God is procured by the redemptive work of Christ, the release of creation from its bondage to decay is assured by that same redemptive work. That earlier argument is akin to the present one, but here it is not simply subjection to futility but positive hostility that is implied on the part of the created universe. The universe has been involved in conflict with its Creator, and needs to be reconciled to him: the conflict must be replaced by peace. This peace has been made through Christ, by the shedding of his life-blood on the cross.
This note of universal reconciliation has been taken to imply the ultimate reconciliation to God not only of all mankind but of hostile spiritual powers as well—to imply, in fact, that Paul anticipated Origen in the view that fallen angels benefit from the redemption which Christ accomplished. If the present argument is accepted as Paul’s, however, it has to be understood in relation to his general teaching on the subject, and it is very difficult to press his language to yield anything like universal reconciliation in the sense in which the phrase is commonly used nowadays. It is contrary to the analogy of Scripture to apply the idea of reconciliation in the ordinary sense to fallen angels; and as for Paul, he thinks rather of hostile spiritual powers as emptied of all vitality by the work of Christ and the faith of his people.170 And even with regard to the human race, to deduce from such words as these that every last man or woman, irrespective of moral record or attitude to God, will at last enjoy eternal bliss would be (to say no more) putting on them a burden of meaning heavier than they can bear.
The peace effected by the death of Christ may be freely accepted, or it may be imposed willy-nilly. This reconciliation of the universe includes what would otherwise be distinguished as pacification. The principalities and powers whose conquest is described in Col. 2:15 are certainly not depicted as gladly surrendering to divine grace but as being compelled to submit to a power which they are unable to resist. Everything in the universe has been subjected to Christ even as everything was created for him. By his reconciling work “the host of the high ones on high” and sinful human beings on earth have been decisively subdued to the will of God and ultimately they can but subserve his purpose, whether they please or not. It is the Father’s good pleasure that all “in heaven and on earth and under the earth” shall unite to bow the knee at Jesus’ name and to acknowledge him as Lord (Phil. 2:10–11).
2.0. Supreme in Redemption (1:18–20)
As outlined above, 1:18a anticipates what comes in 1:18b–20. The theme turns from creation to redemption or to new creation, but it does so by means of ecclesiology: “And he is the head of the body, the church” (1:18a). From ecclesiology, though, we do not first move to the cross as the means of redemption but to the resurrection (1:18b) and then to incarnation (1:19), to the redemption of reconciliation (1:20a), and this redemption is achieved through the cross (1:20b). As Colin Gunton once explained it, “the church is elected as the particular means by which particular anticipations of the promised reconciliation of all things in Christ are achieved.”
2.1. Anticipation (1:18a)
18a This Son (1:13), in whom we have redemption/forgiveness (1:14), who is the Eikōn and Prōtotokos (1:15), in whom all things are created (1:16) and in whom all things are sustained (1:17)—this Son is also the head of the body, namely, the church (1:18a).
What does it mean in this context to call Jesus the “head” (kephalē)? Paul uses this term eighteen times, some of which are no more than a physical head (e.g., 1 Cor 11:4), while others are metaphoric. The debate, fired up by evangelical complementarians, is whether it means “authority over” or “source of,” but that debate is mostly shaped by a theology of marriage and a fear of feminism rather than by what it means when Christ is the head. There is an order at work in 1 Cor 11 when Christ is seen as the head (11:3), but at work in that text is not just priority but also source, for in v. 8 Paul says “man did not come from women,” and this verse explains the glory of v. 7. Furthermore, for one important recent reading of this text, Paul’s orientation is not so much authority-submission as it is headship-hair-covering for all women and therefore an equalitarian move for women, including those who because of low status (prostitutes, slaves) were not entitled to head coverings. So we ought to draw a frown over the false dichotomy at work in the source-vs.-authority conversation, and even a question mark over our confidence of reading 1 Cor 11:1–16. When it comes to the Prison Letters, the term “head” trades off between the superiority/priority of Christ over all things (Col 1:18; 2:10; Eph 1:22) and the unity that Christ brings through his life-drawing redemption (Eph 4:15; 5:23; Col 2:19). A parallel Jewish text is found at the Testament of Zebulon:
Pay heed to the streams: When they flow in the same channel they carry along stones, wood, and sand, but they are divided into many channels, the earth swallows them and they become unproductive. And you shall be thus if you are divided. Do not be divided into two heads, because everything the Lord has made has a single head. He provides two shoulders, two hands, two feet, but members obey one head (9:1–4).
In other words, the “head” in this context is the one who grants and sustains life, while also creating a new kind of unity among the members.
The Son is therefore the redemptive, unifying Lord of the body, one of Paul’s favorite terms in his ecclesiology.342 While the word sōma/body was used metaphorically in the Roman Empire by a variety of thinkers and authors, most notably Livy and Epictetus, the term in Paul refers to the organic, unifying, and mutually supporting roles of believers with one another as they exercise the fruit and gifts of the Spirit so they can grow into one body in Christ. Unity emerges in our hymn at 1:20 and at 2:19 as well. One sees a similar emphasis on unity in 1 Cor 12–14; Rom 12, and Eph 4:1–16. Because the language of church-as-body is so typically Pauline, many have concluded that Paul transformed a prior pagan cosmic “body” into the church, and such scholarship points to the routine use of this term (Plato, Timaeus), as well as to its presence in part in Philo. In that case, Col 1:18a continues the theme of creation (body meaning cosmos) rather than expanding to redeemption. That proposal, however, founders on speculation about the tradition history of the hymn; as we have it, the hymn defines the body as the church, and that connection leads the reader (or listener) to the theme of redemption. In addition, others find here support for the transformation of the more democratic sense of “body” in the earlier Pauline letters (1 Cor 12; Rom 12) into a hierarchical arrangement (Christ, church as body, world), as well as into a different soteriology in the post-Pauline letters. One should not dispute differences between the 1 Corinthians-Romans correspondence and the Prison Letters, but to the degree that one can “Paulinize” on the basis of Paul in light of the ideas of one’s environment, one can posit that Paul himself (or Paul and Timothy, or Paul and his various co-workers) might work up over a decade an expansion of the idea of “body.” If our dating of Colossians is correct, namely in the Ephesian imprisonment in the early to mid-50s, then there is no discussion here: both the local and universal sense of “body” found their way into Paul’s letters at about the same time. It is as wise to divide in order to conquer as it is to unify to the same end.
The term “body” is defined by an epexegetical genitive: “the body, that is, the church.” Paul’s mission was not simply to increase the church’s numbers through evangelism but to get saved Gentiles at the table with saved Jews to form a new family fellowship called the church (ekklēsia). Perhaps most notable here is that “church” in the Prison Letters shifts in focus from local assemblies to the church universal (so also Eph 1:22–23). Such an expansion, however, is not innovative to the Prison Letters—the same sense is found at 1 Cor 12:27–28. Nor should one think Paul has dropped the local expression as the body: it is a particularization of the universal church gathered.348 In this context one must also think the term ekklēsia will have evoked a political assembly of citizens; as such, the co-opting of the term by Paul for a Christian kind of politics under King Jesus has overtones of a political alternative.
2.2. The Beginning and Firstborn (1:18b)
18b Already described and labeled as Eikōn and Prōtotokos over all creation (1:15–16), the exalted Son is now depicted in redemptive categories. In 1:15–17 there is a primordial or essential primacy, while in 1:18–20 the primacy is the achievement of the resurrection. In the second stanza, then, the Son is not only head over the universal church (1:18a), but three more successive descriptions are succinctly given:
He is (#1) the beginning [archē],
inasmuch as he is (#2) the firstborn [prōtotokos] in the resurrection,
so that (#3) he might have supremacy [prōteuōn]. (NIV)
The relationship of these three descriptions is not precisely clear from the grammar, but a reasonable proposal is that archē is defined by prōtotokos, thus making “beginning” a reference to the resurrection, with prōteuōn/supremacy describing his exalted status as a result of the resurrection. In other words, we are staring at an alternative way of stating what is found already in Phil 2:6–11: the Son’s humiliation unto death but subsequent resurrection and exaltation to the highest name.
The relationship of #1 to #2 shapes how one sees “beginning.” Is it temporal (he is before all things; Matt 19:4, 8; John 15:27; Heb 1:10; 2 Pet 3:4; 1 John 2:24), or is it priority over other archai (he is above all powers; Rom 8:38; 1 Cor 15:24; Eph 1:21; 6:12), or is he the source/founder as the creative initiative behind everything? The temporal sense fits best inasmuch as the next descriptor (#2) clearly focuses on temporal priority, and it also focuses on the life-giving power (thus, founder) of the Son’s redemptive work at work in the second stanza: the Son is the beginning of new-creation life as the first one raised from the dead, resulting in a preeminent status over all the redeemed. Yet, the close parallel to our passage at Ephesians 1:20–23, where archē refers to the powers of this age, leads one to hear also an echo of the “powers” (archai) at work in Col 1:18b: his resurrection and exaltation is thus simultaneously a victory over death and the powers.
Evoking a term in the opening sentence of the Greek translation of the Old Testament in the word “beginning” and therefore now opening up new creation, the Son is the beginning of new creation because he is the “firstborn [prōtotokos] from among the dead” (1:18b). At v. 15 the same word was used for the Son in his creative role, but here the term evokes the Son’s temporally prior and redemption-by-defeat-of-death role. We have here, then, new-creation theology that emerges from the Jewish belief in the general resurrection at the eschaton (1 Cor 15:23; Rom 8:29; Acts 26:23; Rev 1:5). Furthermore, following the crucifixion and prior to Easter, this text implies that Christ resided for a moment “among the dead,” evoking what is now called Holy Saturday, which focuses on the descent into Hades and its harrowing (also Eph 4:8–10; 1 Pet 3:19–20; 4:6). Jesus really died and was not asleep; his death led to his invasion of the realm of the dead in order to liberate his people from their temporary captivity. His liberation of the dead comes to expression in the appearing of the saints after his crucifixion, death, and entry into Hades (Matt 27:51–53). His resurrection is the vanguard of the general resurrection. Resurrection cannot be given too much attention either in the apostolic gospel or in Paul’s theology.
His death-defeating resurrection makes it possible for the Son’s exaltation. As this hymn puts it, “so that [in order that] in everything356 he might have the supremacy” (1:18b). His supremacy (prōteuōn) is both temporal and hierarchical, as is the case in the parallel hymn at Phil 2:6–11, where we read the best commentary on our term prōteuōn: “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow … and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” It is possible that prōteuōn is a title, The Preeminent One. Here we come face to face with the gospel itself, which is more than a message of salvation: the gospel is the declaration that Jesus of Nazareth, who lived, who died, and who is risen to the right hand of the Father, is the world’s true Lord and King.359 The gospel announces that Jesus is Prōteuōn!
2.3. The Reason: Redeemer (1:19–20)
The bulk of the second stanza (vv. 19–20) describes and extols the redemptive work of the Creator-Son of the first stanza (vv. 15–17). As the Son creates “all things,” so the Son reconciles “all things.” Reconciliation completes the work of creation. There are two foci for the source of the redemptive reconciliation of the Son: the fullness of God in the Son (1:19) and the cross (20); in other words, incarnation and crucifixion.
19 The first word of this verse in Greek (hoti) can be translated softly as “for” (NIV) or more strongly as “because” (CEB). Each explains the relationship of v. 19 to v. 18: that is, the Son is preeminent because God’s fullness dwells in him. But one might opt instead for a softer relationship and take all of v. 18 as grounded in the Father’s decision to locate all of the fullness in the Son. The sentence is not as clear in the original as the NIV’s translation might suggest: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.” The CEB’s translation is a little less expansive: “Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him.” A wooden rendering would be: “Because/For in him was pleased all the fullness to dwell.” Strict grammatical readings insist that it was the fullness that is both pleased and indwells, but the more expansive translations turn the fullness into the fullness of God and make it God the Father being both pleased and choosing to indwell. The evidence that, in a kind of personification of the Father, the fullness (plērōma) was pleased to indwell boils down to just a few important parallels (1 Cor 10:26; Col 1:19; 2:9; Eph 1:23; 3:19; 4:13). We begin with Colossians, where the parallel expression in 2:9 has “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form”; here it is clear that the fullness is God’s/the Father’s. The same general idea is found at Eph 3:19 (“fullness of God”) and less clear but probably the same at 1:23 (“the fullness of him” or “the fullness of the one”). Because of the indwelling of God’s fullness in the Son, Eph 4:13 transfers the fullness to the “fullness of Christ.” Our conclusion, therefore, is that it is the Father’s fullness, or “God in his fullness,” that is pleased to become incarnate in the Son. Hence, the NIV’s “the fullness of God” makes explicit what is most likely at work in Paul’s syntax.360 The Father as the subject of “pleased” is found elsewhere in Paul (Gal 1:15; 1 Cor 1:21; 10:5), but its presence in the baptism of Jesus gives it a more concrete depth (Isa 42:1; Mark 1:11 and pars.).
But what might fullness (plērōma) mean? A handful of texts in the Old Testament sketch for us a good option: God’s glory fills the temple and in fact the whole earth, and thus glory is God’s extension of himself to fill other spaces (Ps 72:19; Isa 6:3; Jer 23:24; Ezek 43:5; 44:4). This usage approximates what Ephesians 1:23 says: “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” Once again, Dunn finds similar ideas in Jewish wisdom. Thus, “For wisdom is a kindly spirit … because the Spirit of the Lord has filled the world, and that which holds all things together knows what is said” (Wis 1:6–7). It is entirely reasonable to speculate that the halakic mystics at work at Colossae were boasting that they had found “fullness” in their mystical encounters with the angels, leading to the inference that Paul’s locating the plērōma in Christ is a polemical move against the mystics (cf. 2:8–9, 16–23).
The term plērōma expresses Paul’s theology of incarnation with a powerful sense of revision: as Zion echoes temple and was the mountain where God was pleased to dwell (Ps 68:16 [LXX 67:17]; Isa 8:18), so now God dwells in the Son. Hence, we have here a christological revision of temple theology, with echoes of new-creation theology. This divine glory indwells364 the Son. The verb is only used three times by Paul, one in which Christ indwells the believer (Eph 3:17) and two in Colossians, where it refers to divine fullness indwelling the Son (1:19; 2:9). But the idea of God’s covenanted presence is found in a number of places in the Old Testament (Lev 26:12; Ps 68:17), reminding of the routine presence of God among Israel most especially in the tabernacle and temple, with its intensive manifestation in the glory of God filling the holy of holies. Hence, for Paul to speak as he does evokes God’s fullness taking on new form in indwelling the Son, that is, in the incarnation.366 Indeed, the language parallels the incarnational language of John 1:1–18. But in light of the mutual indwelling theme of John 10:38 and 14:10 as a paradigm of how Jesus and the earliest Christians thought of the relationship of the Father and the Son, we ought to think less of essences transferred from Father to Son, the way one might move water from a bottle into a glass, and more of the Father’s fullness indwelling and interpenetrating the Son alongside the Son’s indwelling and interpenetrating the Father (and the Spirit). In other words, it would be more accurate to think more in terms of perichoresis. Hence, Dunn’s summary does not take us far enough: “that the wholeness of God’s interaction with the universe is summed up in Christ” and that the “thought is not yet of incarnation, but it is more than inspiration; rather, it is of an inspiration … so complete … as to be merging into the idea of incarnation.”368 New Testament historical scholarship fears the use of later Christian theological reflection, most especially Nicaea and Chalcedon. That fear at times misses the organic flow from New Testament into Christian orthodoxy. In this case, I believe perichoresis attempts to unfold what is at work by logical implication in the Father’s fullness indwelling the Son.
20 We turn now to one of the great verses of the Bible about redemption by the Son, who earlier in this hymn is described as the Prōtotokos and the Archē. The Son’s redemption reconciles all things, which is a peacemaking work that brings together Jews and Gentiles into one family of God. The redemption here is less an ecotheology or a sociopolitical theology and more a theological and christological ecclesiology. Like the similar vision at Rom 8:19–23, Paul believes all of creation is out of sorts with its Creator, and all of creation is in need of reconciliation.
There is an emphasis in this verse on the Son as the means of reconciliation:
And he reconciled all things to himself through him—
[through him] whether things on earth or in the heavens.
He brought peace through the blood of his cross.
First, through him he reconciles, and second, he makes peace through his blood. Though not noticeable in the NIV or CEB, some manuscripts have another “through him” before “whether things on earth or things in heaven.” With or without this additional “through him,” there is an extraordinary concentration of emphasis here on Christ as the means of reconciliation.
The weight of this last set of lines in the second stanza stands on both “to reconcile” and “by making peace.” The second defines the first, creating a more robust understanding of the Son’s redemptive work. Atonement theories often creep into this text and take over the conversation. However important those theories may be in theological discussions, the fact remains that the means of reconciliation here is the Son’s blood/cross, but to speculate how that blood worked is beyond what this text states. The effect of atonement (reconciliation, peace) and the means of atonement (blood, cross) are the focal images but not the mechanics of atonement. The verb in Col 1:20 (apokatallassō) occurs only in the Prison Letters (Col 1:20, 22; Eph 2:16), but the cognate katallassō and the noun katallagē appear in crucial passages in Pauline soteriology (2 Cor 5:18–20; Rom 5:10, 11; 11:15).
The linguistic game this term and its cognates play is that, first, humans are out of sorts with God (enemies; see Col 1:21)—including the sense of captivity to the cosmic powers, which is the focus in this hymn—in need of reconciliation; second, the means of that reconciliation is King Jesus, who reconciles by means of his salvation-accomplishing events, most notably the cross and resurrection and exaltation to rule. In a number of publications resulting from extensive research, Stanley Porter has concluded that Paul adapted Hellenistic exchange language and stands virtually alone in describing a subject (God) effecting reconciliation by giving up its own anger through the cross of Christ. Paul, he concludes, innovates with his concept of reconciliation and seems to draw the term “reconciliation” into the orbit of the term “propitiation”; for Porter, this term expresses the heart of Paul’s missionary theology.374 I agree that reconciliation expresses the heart of Paul’s soteriology and missionary aims but am unconvinced that propitiatory soteriology forms the heart of Pauline theology and missiology or that such a soteriology is present in this hymn or letter. The heart of Paul’s missional theology is more christological, thus, God-in-Christ or theo-christology in Christoformity, and in our context there is a stronger cosmological victory at work in this term.
We turn now more to the meaning of the terms “reconciliation” and “peacemaking.” To begin with, we observe they are explicitly clarified by vv. 21–22, which read: “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.”
Christian instincts connect this alienation to the fall and original sin (Gen 3), but one ought at least to include the incident of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11), where God sets in motion—because of evil behavior—the division of humans by way of confusing languages. The reconciliation of our passage, then, includes the divided peoples of the Roman Empire, and it must be emphasized that that sort of reconciliation is the focus of Pauline ecclesiology in Colossians (see 3:11) and Ephesians (see 2:11–22). It makes no sense to pretend that God simply makes friends with us apart from the incarnation, cross, and resurrection, the latter two events focusing on death and the undoing of death, and therefore it makes no sense to speak of reconciliation until one admits there is need for such, namely, because humans are at enmity against God and have formed an alliance of enmity against God under the powers of this age, all manifested in “evil behavior” (1:21). And it makes no sense to think the reconciliation here is not also between people groups in this world—spelled out in Col 3:11 (and earlier in Gal 3:28). This much is at least clear in the term itself and in how Paul uses the term. Hence, if Col 1:20 can define reconciliation as making peace through the blood of the cross, 2 Cor 5:19 can do so by defining reconciliation as “not counting people’s sins against them.”
Reconciliation is reexpressed in the second term, “making peace” (eirēnopoieō), a verb used only here in the entire New Testament. The term expresses the sense of adoption into, and behaving like, God’s family. Though these terms are rare in the New Testament, the word “peace” (eirēnē) appears some forty times in the Pauline letters, and the gravity of eirēnē is that it expresses the fullness of God’s redemptive design and will for the churches. Peace and peacemaking are emphatic in the Prison Letters.380 The word “peace” becomes a central term in Christian greetings and, though here dependent on the Jewish greeting “shalom,” begins to take on some fresh colorations because of the reconciling work of the Son. Noticeably in our context, God effects reconciliation by conquering warring parties. That is, the world with its hierarchies and divisions is conquered in Christ so that in the body of Christ one can discover unity among all (Col 3:11).
What is the direction of reconciliation? God acts to reconcile things “to himself.” The simplistic notion that atonement entails divine child abuse of a father against his son, however important it might be to call attention to potential problems in the rhetoric of atonement,384 fails to account for the nuanced language one finds in a text like this. For here the Father originates and carries through redemption by means of the Son’s crucifixion in order to reconcile all things “to himself.” One might say the Father acts out of love and in grace to bring all things back to himself. Paul will write shortly to the Corinthians that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ” (2 Cor 5:19), while in Ephesians 2:14–18 the accent falls on the Son reconciling Jews and Gentiles to the Father. Thus, “world” in 2 Corinthians probably means “Jews and Gentiles” and the other sorts of divisions one finds in Col 3:11.
But this redemptive, reconciling work of peace occurs through the crucifixion of Jesus, a crucifixion expressed in two terms: “blood” and “cross.” The term “blood” in the Bible, owing to the deep association of the ancient world, including Israel’s sacrificial system, is connected to death, to a life’s blood spilled on the altar, and to blood as that which satisfies divine requirements for reconciliation.387 Dunn, observing the Christus victor theme of victory over the powers in our text, sees the “blood of the cross” to be the bloody unjust death of Christ, an idea certainly at least at work in Col 2:15.
Our eyes keep being drawn to the object of reconciliation and peacemaking: “all things.” The theme of universal creation and redemption in Christ runs right through this glorious hymn, and once again there is a record of nearly the same conviction on Paul’s part in Rom 8:19–21, where “creation” will be “liberated from its bondage” and “brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (rooted in Isa 11:6–9; 65:17). But our text sees here the cosmic forces in the principalities and powers (Col 1:16, 20), in which case, one ought to think of this act of reconciliation alongside the triumph of Christ over the powers in Col 2:15 (see below). As well, one needs to connect this reconciling work to Phil 2:6–11, where Christ is the conqueror. Reconciliation encompasses the fullness of God’s triumph over evil in judgment, subjugation of the powers, and redemption for the saints. At work for Paul’s letter, however, is not just the cosmic powers but also their manifestation on earth: hostility between Jews and Gentiles. Hence, the reconciliation of all things in this text also includes the bringing into one body in Christ both Jews and Gentiles by faith.390 One needs to add some perspective because so many run from the word “all” straight into full-blooded universalism or the salvation of all humans and all powers and all supernatural beings. The universal scope of redemption needs to be kept in view in Paul’s magnificent vision of both God’s power and relentless grace, but the fact remains in Pauline letters that not all are saved and the enemies of God are defeated (see Col 2:15). Faith, the enduring sort, is required for salvation (Col 1:23; 2:9–13), and those who turn away from God in Christ will experience judgment (2 Thess 1:5–10).
The claims of this hymn are astounding and, apart from sharing Paul’s faith, which means grasping the reality of God in the cross and resurrection of King Jesus, one could conclude the man was imbalanced. What the apostle claims here is that the whole created order finds its only lasting peace in the ignominy of a bloody act of execution at the hands of violent Romans, an act God unzipped and reconfigured by raising his Son from among the dead. But let the note be emphasized: the whole of creation finds reconciliation in the death of this one solitary man, King Jesus, and it was the resurrection that generated that kind of faith. As Dunn frames it so well: “The vision is vast. The claim is mind-blowing.… In some ways still more striking is the implied vision of the church as the focus and means toward this cosmic reconciliation—the community in which that reconciliation has already taken place (or begun to take place) and whose responsibility it is to live out (cf. particularly 3:8–15) as well as to proclaim its secret (cf. 4:2–6).” This summary locates precisely where Paul and Timothy will now land: on a church that leads the world by becoming the gospel of reconciliation in the way it embodies the gospel.396
1:18 / From cosmic sovereignty, Paul turns to discuss Christ’s preeminence in the church by using the head-body imagery. He has convincingly established Christ’s lordship over the world; now he establishes Christ’s lordship in the church.
If the church can be regarded as a Pauline interpolation, then an earlier version of the hymn must have proclaimed Christ as head of the body only. There is much speculation as to the source of the head-body metaphor in Paul’s writings. Some scholars are attracted to the idea of “corporate personality” in which all of humanity is considered to be “in Adam.” The counterpart in the nt is that, since all Christians are “in Christ”—that is, the church—they can be regarded as the body of Christ. Most scholars, however, believe that the idea comes from Hellenistic conceptions of the cosmic body.
In several Greek sources, including the writings of Plato, the Stoics, and the Alexandrian Jew Philo, there are numerous mythological conceptions of the universe as a body that is governed by a “head.” Here, the cosmos is filled by the deity and consequently viewed as the body of the deity over which there is “Wisdom” or “Logos” as its head. The common belief was that, just as a person’s physical body needs direction and guidance from the head, so the body of the cosmos needs a head such as Logos or Wisdom as a unifying principle.
What the Greeks attributed to Wisdom or Logos for headship, the early church attributed to Christ. He, in other words, is the divine Logos (cf. John’s prologue in 1:1–3) who governs the body (sōma) of the cosmos. It is quite possible that a Christian version of this hymn initially celebrated Christ’s headship over the cosmos. The new development in Colossians is that Paul interprets body not as cosmos but as church. In other words, although Christ is head of the whole world, only the church is his body.
The identification of the church as the body of Christ over which Christ is the head in Colossians (1:18, 24) and Ephesians (1:22, 23; 4:15, 16) is not the same as the description of the “body” in Romans and 1 Corinthians. In those two epistles (Rom. 12:1–8; 1 Cor. 12:4–31), Paul uses the concept of the church as the body of Christ and emphasizes the mutual relationships and obligations that exist among its members by virtue of their spiritual gifts. There the “head” is simply mentioned along with the other members of the body (1 Cor. 12:14–26). Only in Colossians and Ephesians is Christ designated as head over the church. The reason for this surely lies in Paul’s intention to proclaim the lordship of Christ over all things. He wants the Colossians to know that the church is the place where Christ exercises his sovereignty over the cosmos.
This Lord is the beginning of the body’s life, vitalizing and energizing it by virtue of his resurrection. Paul utilizes the phrase firstborn for the second time (cf. 1:15) in order to re-emphasize the priority of Christ. The final result of this is Christ’s absolute preeminence (so that in everything he might have the supremacy).
1:19 / Paul goes on to say that God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him. There are two significant problems connected with the translation and interpretation of this verse.
The first problem is with the meaning of fullness (plērōma). In 2:9, plērōma is equated with all of God’s nature as it dwells in Christ (“for in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form”). On this basis one is justified in giving it the same meaning as in 1:19 rather than seeing it in some Gnostic way in which plērōma is regarded as the totality or fullness of aeons emanating from God and filling the space between heaven and earth. Nevertheless, one aspect of the false teaching in Colossae was that it gave undue prominence to those supernatural powers that filled the universe by regarding them as intermediaries between God and the world. Paul corrects this by affirming that the full nature of God dwells in Christ exclusively.
The second issue centers around the subject of pleased. The Greek literally reads “because in him (Christ) was pleased all the fullness to dwell.” At least three possibilities have been suggested: (a) to make Christ the subject, thus giving the meaning that he (Christ) was pleased that all the fullness of God should dwell in him; (b) to make plērōma the subject, resulting in a translation adopted by the rsv (“for in him all the fulness was pleased to dwell”); and (c) to regard God as the subject. Hence the niv: For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him).
The main argument against this third view is the introduction of God as the subject in a hymn that concentrates on Christ (God has not been mentioned since 1:15). But the Greek text does permit it, and the meaning has support elsewhere in Scripture (cf. Christ’s baptism and transfiguration). These technicalities, however, should not detract from the essential truth that Paul wishes to stress, namely, that Christ is the dwelling place (katoikēsai, “to take up residence”) of God. As such, another factor of Christ’s sovereignty is established.
1:20 / A final tribute is given to Christ as the agent of reconciliation. God was pleased that his fullness should dwell in his Son (1:19). Now, God was also pleased through him [the Son] to reconcile to himself all things. Reconciliation implies an existing estrangement or hostility that needed to be corrected (1:12, 22; Eph. 2:16). The all things that are reconciled are clarified by the phrase whether things on earth or things in heaven. In other words, it is not just the church (humanity) that has been reconciled; the reconciliation wrought by Christ extends to the entire cosmic order. By doing this, Paul shows the Colossians that every part of the universe is included in the reconciling work of Christ. His love has no limits!
One needs to be careful not to push this language to the extreme. Some have understood it very broadly and believe that humanity and all spiritual powers—including the evil angels—are at peace with God. But such a teaching needs to be interpreted in the light of everything Paul, and indeed the entire nt, say about such doctrines as reconciliation and salvation. The main point Paul makes is that everything has been brought into harmony through Christ.
The third Pauline interpolation in this hymn includes the phrase by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross (cf. Rom. 5:1ff.). This locates reconciliation in a historical act, accomplished by the shedding of Christ’s blood on the cross. Paul will have no part of some cosmic drama that may have been perpetuated by the false teachers.
There is a question regarding himself. The rsv and niv are ambiguous enough that one may take it to mean either God or Christ. The same construction (eis auton) is used in 1:16, where Christ is the object. The gnb is probably correct in interpreting the verse to mean that reconciliation is to God (“God … brought back to himself all things”). Thus reconciliation is through Christ but to God!
18. The section showing the Son’s pre-eminence in the sphere of Creation has ended. Here, at verse 18, begins the paragraph describing his equal sovereignty in the realm of Redemption. We read: And he is the head of the body, the church. In the writings of Paul this expression is something new, whether we view it as original with him or as here taken over by him from a familiar hymn or saying. It is nowhere found in the earlier epistles such as Galatians, I and II Thessalonians, I and II Corinthians, or Romans. Yet, it would be unwise on this account to say that Paul cannot have been either the author or confirmer of the idea that Christ is, indeed, the head of the body, namely, the church. To be sure, in the earlier letters the apostle wrote not about Christ as the head of the church but about the church as the body of Christ (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 12:12–31, especially verse 27). His purpose was to show that in that one body there were many members (“foot,” “hand,” “ear,” “eye”); in other words, that in the one organism of the church there were many functions and talents distributed among a large number of believers, and that each “member” should use his gifts to benefit the entire body. He did not then specifically state that the head of this body was Christ. That was not the point at issue in these earlier letters. At Colosse, however, this headship or pre-eminence of Christ was distinctly the truth in need of emphasis, as has already been shown. It is for this reason that this particular aspect of the doctrine is set forth here in Colossians rather than in the earlier epistles.
Nevertheless, it cannot be truthfully maintained that the proposition “Christ is the head of the church” was absolutely foreign to Paul’s thinking previous to the time when he wrote his Prison Epistles. Is not a body supposed to have a head? Besides, had not the apostle written, “The head of every man is Christ” (1 Cor. 11:3)? Now if Christ is the head of every man in the church, is he not also the head of the church?
As head Christ causes his church to live and to grow (Col. 2:19; cf. Eph. 4:15, 16). He is its Organic Head. As head he also exercises authority over the church; in fact, over all things in the interest of the church (Eph. 1:20–23). He is its Ruling Head. It is doubtful whether either of these two ideas is ever completely absent when Christ is called head of the church, though sometimes one connotation and then again the other receives the greater emphasis, as the context indicates. And in such a passage as Eph. 5:23, 24 both ideas (growth and guidance) are brought to the fore.
Now if the Son of God is the Organic and Ruling Head of the church, then the church is in no sense whatever dependent on any creature, angel or otherwise. This is the clear implication over against the teachers of error. Does not the church receive both its growth and guidance from its living Lord? Is it not energized by his power and governed by his Word and Spirit? Hence, is it not true that in Christ it has all it needs, and also that without him it can accomplish nothing? Cf. John 15:5, 7.
“Thou, O Christ, art all I want;
More than all in thee I find.”
(Charles Wesley, in “Jesus, Lover of My Soul”)
And what could be a better illustration of the relation of Christ to his church than the underlying idea of the relation of the human head to the body? Advance in scientific knowledge has confirmed the adequacy of the figure used by the early church and by Paul. In a human individual it is to the head that the body, in large measure, owes its vigorous life and growth (the organic relationship). From the pituitary gland, housed in a small cavity located in the base of the skull, comes the growth hormone (and several other hormones). This hormone is known to be closely related to the health and growth of connective tissue, cartilege, and bone.
Consider also the other functions of the head, those related in large measure to guidance. It is in the head that the organs of special sense are mainly located. The brain receives impulses from the outside world (indirectly) and from inside the body. It organizes and interprets these impulses. It thinks. It reacts, and this both voluntarily and involuntarily. Thus it guides and directs the actions of the individual. In the cerebrum are located, among other things, the areas that control the various parts of the body. The cerebellum has been called “the co-ordinator and harmonizer of muscular action.” The medulla controls such actions as winking, sneezing, coughing, chewing, sucking, swallowing, etc. Here also the cardiac center regulates the rate of heart-beat, while the respiratory center is in charge of the activity of the respiratory organs.
Thus, indeed, when the triune God created the human body with its organic and ruling head, he so constructed that head that it could serve as an excellent symbol of the Organic and Ruling Head of the church, the Lord Jesus Christ.
With reference to the latter the “hymn” now continues, Who is the beginning, the firstborn from die dead. By his triumphant resurrection, nevermore to die, Christ laid the foundation for that sanctified life, that hope and assurance in which his own rejoice (Col. 3:1–17; 1 Peter 1:3 ff.). This resurrection is also the beginning, principle, or cause of their glorious physical resurrection. Hence, from every aspect the statement is true, “Because I live you too will live” (John 14:19). He is the path-breaker, who holds the key of Death and Hades. He has authority over life and death (Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:20; Heb. 2:14, 15; Rev. 1:5). It is he who “on the one hand, utterly defeated death, and on the other hand, brought to light life and incorruptibility through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10). All this is true in order that in all things he might have the pre-eminence. It stands to reason that One who is Firstborn, Point of Reference, Agent, Goal, Forerunner, and Sustainer—Governor (verses 15–17) in the sphere of Creation; and Head of the Body, Beginning, and Firstborn from the dead in the realm of Redemption (verse 18), has the right to the title, “the One who has the pre-eminence—the divine sovereignty—in all things, that is, among all creatures.”
19. Note, however, the words, “that he might have.” These words show that this high honor possessed by the Son was a matter of design, the Father’s good pleasure. Hence, the text continues, For in him he [God] was pleased to have all the fulness dwell.
This delight of the Father in the Son was evident even during the old dispensation, yes, even before the world was founded (Ps. 2:7, 8; John 17:5; Eph. 1:9). During the period of Christ’s sojourn on earth it manifested itself again and again (Matt. 3:17; 17:5; John 12:28). It was indeed God’s good pleasure that in his Son all the fulness should dwell. The powers and attributes of Deity were not to be distributed among a multitude of angels. The divine supremacy or sovereignty, either as a whole or in part, was not to be surrendered to them. On the contrary, in accordance with God’s good pleasure, from all eternity the plenitude of the Godhead, the fulness of God’s essence and glory, which fulness is the source of grace and glory for believers, resides in the Son of his love, in him alone, not in him and the angels. It dwells in him whom we now serve as our exalted Mediator, and it manifests itself both in Creation and Redemption.
Explanatory passages are:
John 1:16, “For out of his fulness we have received grace upon grace.”
Col. 2:3, “in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are stored up.”
Col. 2:9, “For in him all the fulness of the godhead dwells bodily.”
20. Now both in Col. 2:9, 10 and here in 1:19, 20 the fulness which dwells in Christ is mentioned with a practical purpose. It is a source of blessing. Thus here in Col. 1:19, 20 we are told that it was the good pleasure or delight of God the Father that in the Son of his love all the fulness should dwell and through him to reconcile all things to himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross; through him, whether the things on the earth or the things in the heavens. Not only were all things created “through him,” that is, through the Son of God’s love (verse 16), but all things are also (in a sense to be explained) reconciled “through him” (verse 20). In both cases all things has the same meaning: all creatures without any exception whatever:
“There rustles a Name O so dear ’long the clouds,
That Name heaven and earth in grand harmony shrouds.”
This is the nearly literal translation of the first lines of a Dutch hymn:
“Daar ruist langs de wolken een lieflijke naam,
Die hemel en aarde verenigt te zaam.”
Some have objected to the lines for theological reasons.
Personally, I see no reason for rejecting the idea expressed in this poem. One might as well reject Col. 1:20! It is all a matter of interpretation. Thus, it is true, indeed that heaven and earth are not now united, and are not going to be united, in the sense that all rational beings in the entire universe are now with gladness of heart submitting themselves, or will at some future date joyfully submit themselves, to the rule of God in Christ. This universalistic interpretation of Col. 1:20 is contrary to Scripture (Ps. 1; Dan. 12:2; Matt. 7:13, 14; 25:46; John 5:28, 29; Phil. 3:18–21; 2 Thess. 1:3–10; and a host of other passages). It was Origen who was probably the first Christian universalist. In his youthful work De Principiis he suggested this thought of universal, final restoration for all. In his later writings he seems to imply it here and there, but obscures it somewhat by the suggestion of a constant succession of fall and restoration. He has, however, had many followers, and among them some have expressed themselves far more bluntly. Some time ago a minister told his audience, “In the end everybody is going to be saved. I have hope even for the devil.”
The real meaning of Col. 1:20 is probably as follows: Sin ruined the universe. It destroyed the harmony between one creature and the other, also between all creatures and their God. Through the blood of the cross (cf. Eph. 2:11–18), however, sin, in principle, has been conquered. The demand of the law has been satisfied, its curse born (Rom. 3:25; Gal. 3:13). Harmony, accordingly, has been restored. Peace was made. Through Christ and his cross the universe is brought back or restored to its proper relationship to God in the sense that as a just reward for his obedience Christ was exalted to the Father’s right hand, from which position of authority and power he rules the entire universe in the interest of the church and to the glory of God. This interpretation brings the present passage in harmony with the related ones written during this same imprisonment. Note the expression “the things on the earth or the things in the heavens” (or something very similar) not only here in Col. 1:20 but also in Eph. 1:10 and Phil. 2:10.
There is, of course, a difference in the manner in which various creatures submit to Christ’s rule and are “reconciled to God.” Those who are and remain evil, whether men or angels, submit ruefully, unwillingly. In their case peace, harmony, is imposed, not welcomed. But not only are their evil designs constantly being over-ruled for good, but these evil beings themselves have been, in principle, stripped of their power (Col. 2:15). They are brought into subjection (1 Cor. 15:24–28; cf. Eph. 1:21, 22), and “the God of peace (!) will bruise Satan under your feet shortly” (Rom. 16:20). The good angels, on the other hand, submit joyfully, eagerly. So do also the redeemed among men. This group includes the members of the Colossian church as far as they are true believers, a thought to which Paul gives expression in the following verses.
 Bruce, F. F. (1984). The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (pp. 66–76). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 McKnight, S. (2018). The Letter to the Colossians. (N. B. Stonehouse, F. F. Bruce, G. D. Fee, & J. B. Green, Eds.) (pp. 154–167). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
 Patzia, A. G. (2011). Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon (pp. 31–34). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Colossians and Philemon (Vol. 6, pp. 76–82). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.