19. Because it hath pleased the Father that in him. With the view of confirming what he has declared respecting Christ, he now adds, that it was so arranged in the providence of God. And, unquestionably, in order that we may with reverence adore this mystery, it is necessary that we should be led back to that fountain. “This,” says he, “has been in accordance with the counsel of God, that all fulness may dwell in him.” Now, he means a fulness of righteousness, wisdom, power, and every blessing. For whatever God has he has conferred upon his Son, that he may be glorified in him, as is said in John 5:20. He shews us, however, at the same time, that we must draw from the fulness of Christ everything good that we desire for our salvation, because such is the determination of God—not to communicate himself, or his gifts to men, otherwise than by his Son. “Christ is all things to us: apart from him we have nothing.” Hence it follows, that all that detract from Christ, or that impair his excellence, or rob him of his offices, or, in fine, take away a drop from his fulness, overturn, so far as is in their power, God’s eternal counsel.
20. And by him to reconcile all things to himself. This, also, is a magnificent commendation of Christ, that we cannot be joined to God otherwise than through him. In the first place, let us consider that our happiness consists in our cleaving to God, and that, on the other hand, there is nothing more miserable than to be alienated from him. He declares, accordingly, that we are blessed through Christ alone, inasmuch as he is the bond of our connection with God, and, on the other hand, that, apart from him, we are most miserable, because we are shut out from God. Let us, however, bear in mind, that what he ascribes to Christ belongs peculiarly to him, that no portion of this praise may be transferred to any other.2 Hence we must consider the contrasts to these things to be understood—that if this is Christ’s prerogative, it does not belong to others. For of set purpose he disputes against those who imagined that the angels were pacificators, through whom access to God might be opened up.
Making peace through the blood of his cross. He speaks of the Father,—that he has been made propitious to his creatures by the blood of Christ. Now he calls it the blood of the cross, inasmuch as it was the pledge and price of the making up of our peace with God, because it was poured out upon the cross. For it was necessary that the Son of God should be an expiatory victim, and endure the punishment of sin, that we might be the righteousness of God in him. (2 Cor. 5:21.) The blood of the cross, therefore, means the blood of the sacrifice which was offered upon the cross for appeasing the anger of God.
In adding by him, he did not mean to express anything new, but to express more distinctly what he had previously stated, and to impress it still more deeply on their minds—that Christ alone is the author of reconciliation, as to exclude all other means. For there is no other that has been crucified for us. Hence it is he alone, by whom and for whose sake we have God propitious to us.
Both upon earth and in heaven. If you are inclined to understand this as referring merely to rational creatures, it will mean, men and angels. There were, it is true, no absurdity in extending it to all without exception; but that I may not be under the necessity of philosophizing with too much subtlety, I prefer to understand it as referring to angels and men; and as to the latter, there is no difficulty as to their having need of a peace-maker in the sight of God. As to angels, however, there is a question not easy of solution. For what occasion is there for reconciliation, where there is no discord or hatred? Many, influenced by this consideration, have explained the passage before us in this manner—that angels have been brought into agreement with men, and that by this means heavenly creatures have been restored to favour with earthly creatures. Another meaning, however, is conveyed by Paul’s words, that God hath reconciled to himself. That explanation, therefore, is forced.
It remains, that we see what is the reconciliation of angels and men. I say that men have been reconciled to God, because they were previously alienated from him by sin, and because they would have had him as a Judge to their ruin, had not the grace of the Mediator interposed for appeasing his anger. Hence the nature of the peace-making between God and men was this, that enmities have been abolished through Christ, and thus God becomes a Father instead of a Judge.
Between God and angels the state of matters is very different, for there was there no revolt, no sin, and consequently no separation. It was, however, necessary that angels, also, should be made to be at peace with God, for, being creatures, they were not beyond the risk of falling, had they not been confirmed by the grace of Christ. This, however, is of no small importance for the perpetuity of peace with God, to have a fixed standing in righteousness, so as to have no longer any fear of fall or revolt. Farther, in that very obedience which they render to God, there is not such absolute perfection as to give satisfaction to God in every respect, and without the need of pardon. And this beyond all doubt is what is meant by that statement in Job 4:18, He will find iniquity in his angels. For if it is explained as referring to the devil, what mighty thing were it? But the Spirit declares there, that the greatest purity is vile, if it is brought into comparison with the righteousness of God. We must, therefore, conclude, that there is not on the part of angels so much of righteousness as would suffice for their being fully joined with God. They have, therefore, need of a peace-maker, through whose grace they may wholly cleave to God. Hence it is with propriety that Paul declares, that the grace of Christ does not reside among mankind alone, and on the other hand makes it common also to angels. Nor is there any injustice done to angels, in sending them to a Mediator, that they may, through his kindness, have a well-grounded peace with God.
Should any one, on the pretext of the universality of the expression, move a question in reference to devils, whether Christ be their peace-maker also? I answer, No, not even of wicked men: though I confess that there is a difference, inasmuch as the benefit of redemption is offered to the latter, but not to the former.2 This, however, has nothing to do with Paul’s words, which include nothing else than this, that it is through Christ alone, that all creatures, who have any connection at all with God, cleave to him.
19 Were one to ask on what grounds the resurrected Christ should reign supreme, an answer would be forthcoming in vv. 19–20. First of all, he should have first place in all things because it pleased God “to have all the fullness dwell in him.” One might ask, however, the fullness of what or whom? If one may appeal to 2:9 (and there is no convincing reason not to), then the answer is clear enough—the fullness of deity, i.e., of God himself (note NIV’s, “his fullness”). “Fullness” (plērōma, GK 4445) functions here as a “circumlocution for God” (Garland, 93). It was God’s pleasure to dwell fully and completely in Christ. Although articulating it differently, John 1:14 expresses a similar idea: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us …, full of grace and truth.” In Christ a wedding between deity and humanity occurs. He is the incarnate image of God (cf. again v. 15). If the Philippians “hymn” highlights Jesus’ humanity (see esp. Php 2:6–8; cf. 2 Co 8:9), this “poem” emphasizes his divinity.
20 Lest a person be tempted to forget, however, this verse reminds that “the Lord of glory” (1 Co 2:8) was subjected to tremendous agony on the cross (2 Co 13:4). Christ’s ministry of reconciliation was costly indeed. Why should God’s Son have first place in all things (v. 18)? It is not only because of his resurrection (v. 18) or incarnation (v. 19), but it is also because of his crucifixion (v. 20). It would be difficult to exaggerate the centrality of the cross in Paul’s theology (cf. Ro 3:23–25; 5:8–9; 14:7–9; 1 Co 1:18–25; 2:1–2; 15:3–4; 2 Co 5:14–15, 21; Gal 2:20–21; 5:11; 6:12; Eph 2:13–16; Php 2:6–8; 1 Th 4:14; 5:9–10). The cross will feature again in this letter in 1:22 and 2:11–15. For Paul, the cross graphically and persuasively demonstrates the depth of God’s love; the humble, radical obedience of Christ to the Father on behalf of humanity; and the seriousness of sin and the fallen human condition.
It pleased God, the “hymn” contends, to reconcile (i.e., to restore or restitute) all things to himself through Christ (cf. 1:22; Eph 2:16). That there existed a need for restitution between the Creator and the created presupposes a schism and a resulting chasm between the two. Paul believed that this division was due (in large part) to human rebellion against God and the good (see esp. 2:13–14, as well as 1:13, 21; 3:7; cf. Ro 3:23; 6:23; Eph 2:1, 5). The divine solution to the human predicament, Paul propounded, was to turn an instrument of execution (i.e., a Roman cross) into an implement of peace. Jesus, the Prince of Peace (Isa 9:6; Eph 2:14), has effected peace between God and humanity through his bloody (i.e., sacrificial) death on the cross. As 1 Timothy 2:5–6 puts it, Christ Jesus, the One who “gave himself as a ransom for all people” (cf. Mk 10:45), is the “mediator between God and human beings” (TNIV). Where spiritual disconnect and disquiet exist, he comes to bring peace and reign in peace (3:15; cf. Ro 5:1; Eph 2:13–17).
Despite claims to the contrary, the scope of God’s reconciling work in Christ is universal. Be that as it may, reconciliation with God through Christ is not a foregone conclusion. The proclamation and reception of the gospel are the means through which people are reunited with God (cf. 1:5, 23). Those who embrace God’s grace through Christ in the word of the gospel are reconciled to God; those who choose not to do so remain estranged from God and stand outside the realm of his salvific rule (see 1:13, 21; 4:5).
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).
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
1:19 / 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!
19. Greek, “(God) was well pleased,” &c.
in him—that is, in the Son (Mt 3:17).
all fulness—rather as Greek, “all the fulness,” namely, of God, whatever divine excellence is in God the Father (Col 2:9; Eph 3:19; compare Jn 1:16; 3:34). The Gnostics used the term “fulness,” for the assemblage of emanations, or angelic powers, coming from God. The Spirit presciently by Paul warns the Church, that the true “fulness” dwells in Christ alone. This assigns the reason why Christ takes precedence of every creature (Col 1:15). For two reasons Christ is Lord of the Church: (1) Because the fulness of the divine attributes (Col 1:19) dwells in Him, and so He has the power to govern the universe; (2) Because (Col 1:20) what He has done for the Church gives Him the right to preside over it.
should … dwell—as in a temple (Jn 2:21). This indwelling of the Godhead in Christ is the foundation of the reconciliation by Him [Bengel]. Hence the “and” (Col 1:20) connects as cause and effect the two things, the Godhead in Christ, and the reconciliation by Christ.
20. The Greek order is, “And through Him (Christ) to reconcile again completely (see on Eph 2:16) all things (Greek, ‘the whole universe of things’) unto Himself (unto God the Father, 2 Co 5:19), having made peace (God the Father having made peace) through the blood of His (Christ’s) cross,” that is, shed by Christ on the cross: the price and pledge of our reconciliation with God. The Scripture phrase, “God reconciles man to Himself,” implies that He takes away by the blood of Jesus the barrier which God’s justice interposes against man’s being in union with God (compare Note, see on Ro 5:10; 2 Co 5:18). So the Septuagint, 1 Sa 29:4, “Wherewith should he reconcile himself unto his master,” that is, reconcile his master unto him by appeasing his wrath. So Mt 5:23, 24.
by him—“through Him” (the instrumental agent in the new creation, as in the original creation): emphatically repeated, to bring the person of Christ, as the Head of both creations alike, into prominence.
things in earth … in heaven—Good angels, in one sense, do not need reconciliation to God; fallen angels are excluded from it (Jud 1:6). But probably redemption has effects on the world of spirits unknown to us. Of course, His reconciling us, and His reconciling them, must be by a different process, as He took not on Him the nature of angels, so as to offer a propitiation for them. But the effect of redemption on them, as He is their Head as well as ours, is that they are thereby brought nearer God, and so gain an increase of blessedness [Alford], and larger views of the love and wisdom of God (Eph 3:10). All creation subsists in Christ, all creation is therefore affected by His propitiation: sinful creation is strictly “reconciled” from its enmity; sinless creation, comparatively distant from His unapproachable purity (Job 4:18; 15:15; 25:5), is lifted into nearer participation of Him, and in this wider sense is reconciled. Doubtless, too, man’s fall, following on Satan’s fall, is a segment of a larger circle of evil, so that the remedy of the former affects the standing of angels, from among whom Satan and his host fell. Angels thereby having seen the magnitude of sin, and the infinite cost of redemption, and the exclusion of the fallen angels from it, and the inability of any creature to stand morally in his own strength, are now put beyond the reach of falling. Thus Bacon’s definition of Christ’s Headship holds good: “The Head of redemption to man; the Head of preservation to angels.” Some conjecture that Satan, when unfallen, ruled this earth and the pre-Adamic animal kingdom: hence his malice against man who succeeded to the lordship of this earth and its animals, and hence, too, his assumption of the form of a serpent, the subtlest of the animal tribes. Lu 19:38 states expressly “peace in heaven” as the result of finished redemption, as “peace on earth” was the result of its beginning at Jesus’ birth (Lu 2:14). Bengel explains the reconciliation to be that of not only God, but also angels, estranged from men because of man’s enmity against God. Eph 1:10 accords with this: This is true, but only part of the truth: so Alford’s view also is but part of the truth. An actual reconciliation or restoration of peace in heaven, as well as on earth, is expressed by Paul. As long as that blood of reconciliation was not actually shed, which is opposed (Zec 3:8, 9) to the accusations of Satan, but was only in promise, Satan could plead his right against men before God day and night (Job 1:6; Rev 12:10); hence he was in heaven till the ban on man was broken (compare Lu 10:18). So here; the world of earth and heaven owe to Christ alone the restoration of harmony after the conflict and the subjugation of all things under one Head (compare Heb 11:23). Sin introduced discord not only on earth, but also in heaven, by the fall of demons; it brought into the abodes of holy angels, though not positive, yet privative loss, a retardation of their highest and most perfect development, harmonious gradation, and perfect consummation. Angels were no more able than men by themselves to overcome the peace disturbers, and cast out the devils; it is only “by,” or “through HIM,” and “the blood of HIs cross,” that peace was restored even in heaven; it is only after Christ has obtained the victory fully and legally, that Michael (Rev 12:7–10) and his angels can cast out of heaven Satan and his demons (compare Col 2:15). Thus the point of Paul’s argument against angel-worship is, that angels themselves, like men, wholly depend on Christ, the sole and true object of worship [Auberlen].
Ver. 19.—For in him he was pleased that all the fulness should dwell (ch. 2:9; Eph. 1:10; John 1:14, 16; Acts 2:36; Heb. 7:25; Matt. 28:18). Vers. 19, 20 stand to ver. 18 as vers. 16, 17 to ver. 15. The creative work of the Son explains and justifies his supremacy over the natural universe, and his reconciling work accounts for his lordship over the Church, as it establishes his “pre-eminence in all things.” In him dwelt the forces and laws of the first creation; in him, likewise, all the fulness engaged in the new creation. It is hard to say what is the grammatical subject of “was pleased.” (1) The great majority of interpreters, both ancient and modern, understand “the Father” as borrowed from vers. 12, 13, and suggested by the apostle’s use of this verb elsewhere (see 1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 1:15; Phil. 2:13; Eph. 1:5, 9, 11); so, recently, De Wette, Meyer, Lightfoot, Alford, Klöpper, R.V. (2) Ellicott, Ewald, R. Schmidt, Weiss, R.V. margin, adopt the immediately following “all the fulness.” (3) Conybeare, Hofmann, with a few others, prefer “the Son,” the exclusive and all-absorbing subject of vers. 15–18. The second interpretation personifies Pleroma in a manner unsupported by Pauline usage, and more suitable to the second century (see note on “fulness,” below); but the considerations urged by its supporters against the common view are of great weight. In favour of the third interpretation given above, are the following reasons: that it supplies the nearest subject, that which the Colossian reader, without the usage of other Epistles in his mind, would naturally assume; that it prepares for the reference of the further predicates, “reconcile,” “having made peace,” “present you holy,” etc. (vers 20–23), to Christ, in agreement with the closely parallel Eph. 2:14–16; 5:27; further and especially, that this view best harmonizes with the sustained and unique emphasis with which the writer has dwelt en the sovereignty of Christ in every clause from ver. 14 onwards; and, lastly, that his point of view is historical (note the aorists throughout vers. 18–20), as concerned not with the “eternal purpose” and absolute initiative of the Father, but with the establishment of his own kingdom by the Son (ver. 13; see note on “unto him,” ver. 16). There is nothing in the term “well pleased” (“good pleasure”) to prevent the apostle applying it to the Son, if he finds occasion to do so. But “this view confuses the theology of the passage hopelessly” (Lightfoot). Just the same is said Baur and Pfleiderer of the “unto him” of ver. 16, and the “all in all” of ch. 3:11, as compared with the language of 1 Corinthians and Romans; and the same answer holds good in each case, viz. that the apostle speaks concerning Christ and the Church, and his thoughts move within the circle of their mutual relations, grounded as these are in the Christian constitution of the universe itself. God’s good pleasure (Eph. 1:5, 9) lay within and behind Christ’s choice and action (John 8:29); but it was his own good pleasure too (John 10:30). So in John 10:18 (comp. also Eph. 5:2 and Gal. 2:20 with Rom. 5:8 and 8:32) the initiative of Christ in the work of redemption is recognized along with that of the Father. “He emptied himself” (Phil. 2:7); and again “was pleased” that “all the fulness” should be his: comp. Eph. 4:8–11 (quite consistent with 1 Cor. 12:28), Heb. 1:3 b, where Christ appears regally assuming his own glory. “All the fulness” is not precisely “the fulness of the Godhead” of ch. 2:9. Had the more definite expression preceded, it would have been fair to interpret is more general one by its aid. Pleroma is a word so varied and elastic in Pauline usage (see Rom. 11:12; 13:10; Gal. 4:4; Eph 1:10, 23; 3:19; 4:13) that it can scarcely have hardened suddenly into “a recognized term in theology, denoting the totality of the Divine Person and attributes” (Lightfoot). No earlier example of such a usage is furnished. To import it here is to make the Epistle speak the language of the second century. “All the fulness” ascribed to “the Son of God’s love” as “Head over all things to the Church,” alike “Beginning of the creation of God” and “Firstborn out of the dead,” embraces that entire plenitude of nature and of power residing in him since the time that he ascended to the right hand of power (ch. 3:1; 1 Pet. 1:21; Heb. 1:3, 4; 5:9; 7:28), and in virtue of which he “becomes in all things pre-eminent” Κατοικέω denotes a “fixed dwelling” (ch. 2:9; Eph. 3:17); but is aorist in tense here (present in ch. 2:9) along with εὐδόκησε (“was pleased”)—“should make its dwelling in him” (see Acts 7:2, 4), pointing to a distinct event, viz. in this case the Ascension which consummated the Resurrection set forth in the last clause. Eph. 1:20–23 and 4:8–10 strongly confirm the correctness of this view; there “the fulness” with which Christ is charged, and wherewith he proceeds to “fill all things,” dates from his ascension (John 12:32; Acts 2:32–34; 5:30, 31; Rom. 8:34). (On the etymology and history of Pleroma, see Lightfoot, pp. 257–273. It is passive in derivation, denoting that wherewith anything is filled or made complete.) “From henceforth” Christ is a complete Christ, and we are “made complete in him” (ch. 2:9, 10; see notes). This plenitude qualifies him as plenipotentiary in his work of reconciliation.
Ver. 20.—And (was pleased) through him to reconcile all things unto him (ver. 16; Eph. 1:10; Heb. 9:26; 10:12, 13; Ps. 2:7, 8). Not “through Christ—unto the Father,” as Meyer, Alford, Ellicott, Lightfoot contend. This involves reading “the Father” as subject of ver. 19 (see note). There is nothing in the grammar of this verse to suggest a reference of the same pronoun to two different persons. And the analogy of ver. 16 appears decisive (see note): “Through him and unto him all things were created and reconciled” (De Wette, Conybeare, Hofmann). So Chrysostom: “Lest thou shouldest think that he undertook the office of a minister only, he saith ‘unto himself.’ And yet he elsewhere says that he reconciled us ‘to God.’ ” English idiom prefers the reflexive “himself” in such a sentence (so in ver. 19); but it is not necessary in Greek (A. Buttmann, ‘N. T. Grammar,’ p. 111, English trans.). Elsewhere καταλλάσσω (“reconcile”) is construed with πρὸς or simple dative; here with εἰς in correspondence with ver. 16, and implying, in contrast with διὰ (“through”), the end for which rather than the person to whom one is reconciled (ver. 18 b; also Rom. 14:9; 2 Cor. 5:15; 1 Cor. 3:23). Brought back again to peace with God, we are brought into the kingdom of his Son (vers. 13, 14). The rebels are made to “kiss the Son.” He wins back his kingdom in them. And so the design of creation as his dominion is answered at last. “Reconcile” (“reconciliation”) in New Testament usage implies previous resentment in him to whom the offender is reconciled (see Cremer’s ‘Lexicon,’ and Meyer on v. 10). For such resentment in Christ, comp. ch. 3:13; 1 Cor. 8:12; Luke 19:27; Acts 26:14; Rev. 6:16; Ps. 2:12. Καταλλάσσω is “to take into favour or allegiance,” and, with ἀπό, “to take back into favour.” This reconciliation to Christ the King concerns the “all things” of ver. 16, restoring the broken unity of creation (see note on “the things in the heavens,” below). And there is an actual reconciliation now being carried on by the Son from heaven (Phil. 3:20, 21; 1 Cor. 15:25), resting upon the potential reconciliation effected on the cross (compare the same double sense in 2 Cor. 5:18–21). Having made peace through the blood of his cross (ch. 2:13, 14; Eph. 2:13–18; 2 Cor. 5:18–6:1; Rom. 3:25; 5:10; Heb. 9:11–14; Rev. 1:5; 5:9; Matt. 26:28). The apostle “glories” only “in the cross” (Gal. 6:14), the sole means of salvation, viewed from whatever side (1 Cor. 1:23, 24). Peace is made for those who were “alienated and enemies in wicked works” (ver. 21), who were under the dominion of the enemy of God and his Christ (vers. 13, 14). It begins as the peace of forgiveness (ver. 14; 2:13; 3:13; Rom. 3:24–26; 5:1), and continues as an abiding fellowship with God through the Spirit, in obedience to Christ, the one Lord (ver. 13; ch. 2:6; Rom. 5:1, 2; 8:5–9, 28; Gal. 5:22; Phil. 4:7; 2 Cor. 10:4, 5; Acts 2:32–34). There can be peace only when he is Lord (1 Cor. 15:25; Heb 10:13; Rev. 19:11–16). In this all the present blessings of salvation are comprised (ver. 2). “The blood of the cross” is the one all-sufficient atonement which brings men into peace with God, and so puts them back into the kingdom of Christ, who is “Prince and Saviour,” “Priest and King” (Rom. 3:25, 26; 14:9; 2 Cor. 5:15; Titus 2:14). Faith, the subjective condition of peace, appears in ver. 23 (Rom. 5:1; 15:13). “Having made peace,” as a single compound verb, occurs only here in the New Testament (comp. Matt. 5:10). The repeated through him is textually doubtful; copyists were more likely to omit than to insert it here. This emphatic repetition suitably introduces the bold and startling words, whether the things on the earth, or the things in the heavens (ver. 16). The things “in the heavens,” as in ver. 16, include the whole creation, spiritual or material, other than “the things upon the earth.” In Rom. 8:19–21 we learned that the earthly creation shares man’s fall and his redemption. But “sin entered” (Rom. 5:12) here from outside, and how far its influence extends beyond our planet we cannot tell. St. Paul does not positively affirm that the reconciliation of the cross embraces other worlds than ours. He speaks hypothetically. Christ’s death is in his eyes an event parallel only to creation in its magnitude, and he can set no limit to its potential efficacy. Its virtue is sufficient to “reconcile all things,” wherever such reconciliation is needed and is possible (yet see Heb. 2:16). The difficulty is not to be evaded by putting a milder sense on “reconcile” as applied to “the things in the heavens” (so Alford and others, referring to Eph. 3:10); “the blood of the cross” forbids any thought but that of the propitiatory atonement (see Meyer). Nor does the text say anything of a reconciliation between “earth and heaven” (Erasmus), “men and angels” (Chrysostom, Bengel), “Jews and Gentiles,” “secular and spiritual affairs,” etc.; such glosses are opposed to St. Paul’s strict use of the word “reconcile,” and to the parallelism of ver. 16.
God with us in Christ (verse 19)
Verse 19 concerns the coming of God to dwell with men, foreshadowed from the earliest days of the exodus by the tent in the wilderness. Now it is in Christ that the fullness of God is pleased to dwell.
As we have seen, ‘fullness’ is a characteristic word of the Colossian letter; as a concept it played a large part in second-century Gnosticism, and even at this early stage was evidently becoming a major theme of the visiting teachers. Now the word ‘fullness’ (plēroma) can mean a supplement, that is, something added to supply a deficiency, or it can mean a complement, that is the full number that makes up a whole, for example a ship’s company. The distinction between the two meanings may help to clarify the difference between the apostolic teaching and the new teaching. For Paul there was nothing whatever of the Godhead that was not in Christ; the full complement of divine attributes is to be found in him. But for the new teachers, union with Christ did not of itself bring anyone into such fullness of divine life; there was still room (and need) for a supplementary work of God. This could be thought of by saying that God had still more of himself to give than Christ, or that Christ was not received in all his fullness at conversion. However this was thought of, for Paul it represented a serious misunderstanding. The work of the teacher is to lead people to find their fullness in Christ alone: he does not possess anything beyond Christ to give to his people.
The aorist infinitive (‘to take up his dwelling’) gives verse 19 a reference to the incarnation that is hard to deny. But the present tense in 2:9 (‘in him the whole fullness … dwells bodily’) reminds us that the Christ of history is now at God’s right hand. Incarnation (verse 19) prepares the way for atonement (verse 20), but now we are to seek the fullness of God in Christ above, and not on earth (3:1f.)
In the developed Gnosticism of the second century it was axiomatic that a holy God could have no direct dealings with the material world which was thought of as necessarily evil. As a result, numerous gradations of spiritual beings were considered necessary to span the all but infinite gulf between God and man. Whatever ideas of this sort were circulating in the Lycus valley in Paul’s day, it was inevitable that even the Christians would be influenced by them (in no age are Christians uncontaminated by the pagan thought-forms of their day). The new teaching brought by the visitors undoubtedly included something of this pagan colouring; it is possible, for instance, that they spoke of additional mediatorial powers assisting in the supreme work of bringing the fullness of God’s wisdom, love and power, to the sinful.
Over against these rather ‘natural’ ideas, the startling words of Paul affirm that it was God’s pleasure to make Christ the permanent dwelling place of his divine fullness, so that he should be the one mediator between heaven and earth. The apostolic teaching always takes with the utmost seriousness both the full deity and the complete and perfect humanity of Christ, for only so can he be the sufficient mediator between God and man. This apostolic view forbids a devotion to a human Jesus who is not Christ the Lord, just as it rules out the idea of a ‘spiritual’ Christ known chiefly as a miracle-worker rather than as a suffering servant.
When I was making final revision of this paragraph, The Myth of God Incarnate, a symposium edited by John Hick, had attracted considerable attention. Probably not many who know of the stir caused by this book will have read it (a difficult task for anyone), but the immediate impression given by the imprecise title is not far wrong. The re-interpretation of the doctrine of the incarnation attempted by Maurice Wiles and John Hick turns out to be an abandonment of the truth as formulated in the Nicene Creed (ad 325) and the Chalcedonian Definition (ad 451). One thing the book does not make clear is what view the authors hold of God, an important point if we are trying to understand what is meant by saying that in Christ God became man. If we are pantheists, and identify the universe with God, there will be no difficulty in calling Christ divine, for the same could be said of anyone. But pantheism is incompatible with theism in which a clear distinction between Creator and creature is made. If this contrast between man and his Maker is true, as Christian theism has always affirmed, then the doctrine of the incarnation makes a claim for Christ that has been made for no other human being.
By itself verse 19 is striking enough as a description of a unique and unrepeatable act of divine condescension, but it is only by seeing this verse in its context that the full implications of what Paul is saying become clear. It is the fullness of the Almighty God who is Maker of heaven and earth that was pleased to dwell in Christ. What this paragraph demonstrates is that such a belief in Jesus as God incarnate was an essential part of the earliest Christian message.
God for us in Christ (verse 20)
If verse 19 tells us that nothing of God’s fullness is lacking in Christ, verse 20 asserts that nothing in the universe is outside the range of God’s reconciling work in Christ. Once more, the little word ‘all’ is significant in both verses.
The need for reconciliation between God and his creation implies, of course, an already existing state of strife and disharmony. A gigantic rupture has taken place, dislocating the relationship between God and man, and throwing into disarray the whole created order. The world knows no settled peace. Futility and decay are the hallmarks of creation (Rom. 8:18f.); hostility and evil are the hallmarks of mankind (verse 21).
The ancient world knew what it was to ask questions about the baffling problems of reconciliation. But without the truth of the gospel there was no possibility of an answer so comprehensive, unqualified and decisive, as Paul gives here. It is not from man but God that the initiative has come: it is not through numberless emissaries that the work has been done but ‘through him’, the one Christ: the impossibility, as men saw it then, of reconciliation between heaven and earth has found its solution, not in some ‘other-worldly drama’ (Lohse) but precisely at a certain place, and at a time well remembered, where Christ had endured a bloody and painful death on a Roman cross.
The essence of verse 20 may be summarized by four statements.
(i) Reconciliation is a work of God. The Bible is not the story of man’s search for God. From the first sentence (‘In the beginning God created …’) Holy Scripture is marked out from other religious writings by its unique insistence that the initiative belongs wholly to God. If verse 21 realistically describes man’s moral and spiritual state there can be no hope of peace unless God undertakes the work of peacemaking. Verse 19 precedes verse 20 precisely to make clear that God must even take human flesh to provide the Man who will be able to represent all men. So it is only ‘through Christ’ that reconciliation can be attempted and accomplished.
(ii) Reconciliation is a work that has been accomplished. Man need not wait for reconciliation until the end of time, for peace has been made by the death of Christ. Therefore reconciliation with God waits not upon human achievement but upon human acceptance. This apostolic affirmation cannot be surrendered in the face of liberal Christianity with its oft-repeated claim that the only change necessary for reconciliation with God lies in the heart of man: God, it is confidently said, does not need to be reconciled to us.
If this were so, the work of Christ in dying would be directed only towards man (to melt his heart and shame him from his foolish rebellion). But it is undeniable, if we take seriously the language of the New Testament, that the work of Christ on the cross was directed toward God. ‘We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the rightenous, and he is the propitiation for our sins.’
Propitiation in the New Testament does not deny the love of God, as in pagan religions, but rather demonstrates it. We need an advocate with the Father, just because he is also our Judge. We have an advocate with the Father, just because, in great mercy, God has come in Christ to provide one.
The Christian doctrine of reconciliation is free from all pagan misrepresentations in that the one who requires to be reconciled is the one who carries out the work of reconciliation. ‘In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.’ Once again verse 19 is an essential introduction to verse 20.
The importance of this will be realized when we see that if no objective work of reconciliation was done by Christ’s death, the message of the cross ceases to be a gospel (that is, good news) and becomes simply an appeal.
(iii) Reconciliation was achieved at the cross. The ‘blood’ of the cross means Christ’s sacrificial death. The Christian gospel concerns what happened there. The heart of the church’s message must therefore be the preaching of ‘Christ and him crucified.’19 The church has constantly to return to this ‘word of the cross’ to rediscover her gospel, and her power. Since presumably the principalities and powers know full well the place of their defeat (2:15), it must be their overriding concern to lead the church to espouse a ‘different gospel.’ The serpent’s shrewdest efforts are aimed to take people’s minds off the place where his head was struck a mortal blow. In the case of the Colossian visitors it seems likely that Christ’s cross was not the centre of their teaching. Perhaps they were tempted, as we are, to shift the centre of gravity from the historical faith, and to locate the place of power in their own ministry. Paul never locates power in persons or ceremonies. He would turn our eyes back to the cross for the place of power, and up to the throne for the true man of power.
(iv) Reconciliation through Christ takes in all things. Finally, the scope of this reconciliation is universal. It takes in the whole created order. ‘All things’ will share the wonders of peace with God. Other passages fill in the time scale of this, showing how creation must ‘wait’ for the day when God’s sons will be revealed.
What is particularly important here is that Christ is again put before the Colossians, and ourselves, as a sufficient Saviour. Nothing and nobody lies outside the scope of his reconciling work. That is not the same as saying that everyone will be saved (an impossible hope if we take Christ’s warnings as seriously as his promises). But it is to say that all who are ultimately reconciled to God will be saved by Christ’s blood. Paul’s statement here is the death knell of syncretism, that most popular of modern heresies, which calls upon men of different faiths to join hands against the common enemies of atheism and materialism. Christians have always confessed that there is but one God; they have also found themselves in loyalty bound to confess that there is but one way to that God, the God-man Christ Jesus. He alone is the God-given mediator. God has made him the agent of reconciliation for all just because there is no other mediator capable of reconciling any. ‘He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.’
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.
He Is the Beloved of the Father (Col. 1:19–20)
Paul had already called Jesus Christ “His [God’s] dear Son” (Col. 1:13). Those who have trusted Jesus Christ as their Saviour are “accepted in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:6). For this reason, God can call us His beloved (Col. 3:12).
Then Paul took a giant step forward in his argument, for he declared that “all fullness” dwelt in Jesus Christ! The word translated “fullness” is the Greek word pleroma (pronounced “play-RO-ma”). It was a technical term in the vocabulary of the gnostic false teachers. It meant “the sum total of all the divine power and attributes.” We have already noted that Paul used this important word eight times in the Colossian letter, so he was meeting the false teachers on their own ground.
The word dwell is equally important. It means much more than merely “to reside.” The form of the verb means “to be at home permanently.” The late Dr. Kenneth S. Wuest, noted Greek expert, pointed out in his excellent commentary on Colossians that the verb indicates that this fullness was “not something added to His Being that was not natural to Him, but that it was part of His essential Being as part of His very constitution, and that permanently” (Ephesians and Colossians in the Greek New Testament, Eerdmans, p. 187).
The Father would not permanently give His pleroma to some created being. The fact that it “pleased the Father” to have His fullness in Christ is proof that Jesus Christ is God. “And of His [Christ’s] fullness have all we received” (John 1:16). “For in Him [Jesus Christ] dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9).
Because Jesus Christ is God, He is able to do what no mere man could ever do: reconcile lost sinners to a holy God. When the first man and woman sinned, they declared war on God; but God did not declare war on them. Instead, God sought Adam and Eve; and He provided a covering for their sins.
The natural mind of the unsaved sinner is at war with God (Rom. 8:7). The sinner may be sincere, religious, and even moral; but he is still at war with God.
How can a holy God ever be reconciled with sinful man? Can God lower His standards, close His eyes to sin, and compromise with man? If He did, the universe would fall to pieces! God must be consistent with Himself and maintain His own holy Law.
Perhaps man could somehow please God. But by nature, man is separated from God; and by his deeds, he is alienated from God (Col. 1:21). The sinner is “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1ff), and therefore is unable to do anything to save himself or to please God (Rom. 8:8).
If there is to be reconciliation between man and God, the initiative and action must come from God. It is in Christ that God was reconciled to man (2 Cor. 5:19). But it was not the incarnation of Christ that accomplished this reconciliation, nor was it His example as He lived among men. It was through His death that peace was made between God and man. He “made peace through the blood of His cross” (Col. 1:20).
Of course, the false teachers offered a kind of reconciliation between man and God. However, the reconciliation they offered was not complete or final. The angels and the “emanations” could in some way bring men closer to God, according to the gnostic teachers. But the reconciliation we have in Jesus Christ is perfect, complete, and final. More than that, the reconciliation in Christ involves the whole universe! He reconciles “all things unto Himself … things in earth, or things in heaven” (Col. 1:20).
However, we must not conclude wrongly that universal reconciliation is the same as universal salvation. “Universalism” is the teaching that all beings, including those who have rejected Jesus Christ, will one day be saved. This was not what Paul believed. “Universal restorationism” was not a part of Paul’s theology, for he definitely taught that sinners needed to believe in Jesus Christ to be saved (2 Thes. 1).
Paul wrote that Christ solved the sin problem on the cross once and for all. This means that one day God can bring together in Christ all that belong to Him (Eph. 1:9–10). He will be able to glorify believers and punish unbelievers, and do it justly, because of Christ’s death on the cross. No one—not even Satan—can accuse God of doing wrong, because sin has been effectively dealt with on the cross.
If Jesus Christ is only a man, or only an emanation from God, He cannot reconcile God and man. The only arbitrator who can bring God and man together is One who is both God and Man Himself. Contrary to what the gnostics taught, Jesus Christ was a true human being with a real body. He was God in human flesh (John 1:14). When He died on the cross, He met the just demands of the Law because He paid the penalty for man’s sins (1 Peter 2:24). Reconciliation was completed on the cross (Rom. 5:11).
A man once came to see me because he had difficulties at home. He was not a very well-educated man and sometimes got his words confused. He told me that he and his wife were having “martial problems” when he meant to say “marital problems.” (Later I found out that they really were “at war” with each other, so maybe he was right after all!) But the word that caught my attention was in this sentence: “Pastor, me and my wife need a recancellation.”
He meant to say reconciliation, but the word recancellation was not a bad choice. There can be peace and a reunion of those who are at war only when sin has been cancelled. As sinners before a righteous God, we need a “recancellation.” Our sins were cancelled on the cross.
As we review this profound section (and this study has only scratched the surface), we notice several important truths.
First, Jesus Christ has taken care of all things. All things were created by Him and for Him. He existed before all things, and today He holds all things together. He has reconciled all things through the Cross. No wonder Paul declared that “in all things He might have the preeminence” (Col. 1:18).
Second, all that we need is Jesus Christ. We have all of God’s fullness in Him, and we are “filled full” (complete) in Him (Col. 2:10). There is no need to add anything to the person or work of Jesus Christ. To add anything is to take away from His glory. To give Him prominence instead of preeminence is to dethrone Him.
Third, God is pleased when His Son, Jesus Christ, is honored and given preeminence. There are people who tell us they are Christians, but they ignore or deny Jesus Christ. “We worship the Father,” they tell us, “and that is all that is necessary.”
But Jesus made it clear that the Son is to be worshiped as well as the Father “that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent Him” (John 5:23–24, niv).
The late Dr. M.R. DeHaan, noted radio Bible teacher, told about a preacher who was confronted by a cultist who rejected the deity of Jesus Christ.
“Jesus cannot be the eternal Son of God, for a father is always older than his son,” the man argued. “If the Father is not eternal, then He is not God. If Jesus is His Son, then He is not eternal.”
The preacher was ready with an answer. “The thing that makes a person a father is having a son. But if God is the eternal Father, then He must have an eternal Son! This means that Jesus Christ is eternal—and that He is God!”
Jesus Christ is the Saviour, the Creator, the Head of the church, and the Beloved of the Father. He is eternal God … and in Our lives He deserves to have the preeminence.
Is Jesus Christ preeminent in your life?
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, J. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians (pp. 154–157). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Still, T. D. (2006). Colossians. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, pp. 293–294). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Bruce, F. F. (1984). The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (pp. 72–76). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, pp. 373–374). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
 Lucas, R. C. (1980). Fullness & freedom: the message of Colossians & Philemon (pp. 53–58). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.