Notes on Colossians 1:21-23.
Paul now personalizes the message: reminding his readers of the way Christ has changed their lives: reconciling them to God.
Καὶ ὑμᾶς ποτε ὄντας ἀπηλλοτριωμένους καὶ ἐχθροὺς τῇ διανοίᾳ ἐν τοῖς ἔργοις τοῖς πονηροῖς, νυνὶ δὲ ἀποκατήλλαξεν ἐν τῷ σώματι τῆς σαρκὸς αὐτοῦ διὰ τοῦ θανάτου παραστῆσαι ὑμᾶς ἁγίους καὶ ἀμώμους καὶ ἀνεγκλήτους κατενώπιον αὐτοῦ, εἴ γε ἐπιμένετε τῇ πίστει τεθεμελιωμένοι καὶ ἑδραῖοι καὶ μὴ μετακινούμενοι ἀπὸ τῆς ἐλπίδος τοῦ εὐαγγελίου οὗ ἠκούσατε, τοῦ κηρυχθέντος ἐν πάσῃ κτίσει τῇ ὑπὸ τὸν οὐρανόν, οὗ ἐγενόμην ἐγὼ Παῦλος διάκονος.
"And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him — provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel." (NRSV)
Jesus Christ is the reconciler. Paul writes in verse 20: "and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross." The ideas here remind us of 2 Corinthians 5:19: "in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself...."
And, the language is very similar. In 2 Corinthians 5:19 the word καταλλασσω is used. It's a compound word: κατα + αλλασσω. In the ancient world this term was used for exchanging coins. And, it is the word Paul generally uses for reconciliation between God and a rebellious people. In Colossians 1:20 the related word αποκαταλλασσω is used. Here απο has been added to κατα + αλλασσω. The meaning is thus intensified: complete reconciliation.
It's the habit of a lifetime, I know, but, this passage seems to me to fall into a nice, neat, old fashioned sermon outline:
1.) The need for reconciliation: "And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds...."
The Good News of the Christian Gospel assumes a certain Bad News about the human condition and about human nature. We are rebels by nature, and do not naturally behave in ways that benefit ourselves, or others, or our world. Yes, the human race was created in the image of God. But, sin has distorted the picture.
I'm reminded of the picture drawn in Ephesians 2:1-3: "You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else." (NRSV)
Here is the sad state of the human race. The ones who should be the image and reflection of God are in fact "estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds...." We are estranged (ἀπηλλοτριωμένους) from the God who created and loves us. While created by God, we have become strangers to God. We do not know who we are. We do not understand the purposes for which we were created. But, the next word is even more tragic. We are not only estranged, but enemies (ἐχθροὺς)! Why should this be? Paul adds the phrase: "...doing evil deeds." Not knowing who we are by creation, going our own way, influenced by a fallen and mistaken age, we are caught in selfishness and evil. Once established in a life apart from the will of God, being caught up in evil deeds, we must then, justify our way of life. We must, then, advocate it as our way of life.
So it is that the very being God created in his image, becomes the enemy of God. Being established in purposes and directions contrary to God's will, we now become the enemies of God.
What a strange and tragic picture this is. And, yet, it resonated with their lives. The apostle’s readers knew this was the true pictures of their lives. Paul doesn't have to convince them of this. No, this is what they know. This is the story of their lives. They once were lost and now they are found. The story has an inner credibility to it.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.”
When the preacher preaches this message, people recognize themselves in it. Suddenly guilt and conviction awakens in their heart. They say: "The preacher is talking about me." And, deep within their hearts, they know they no longer want to be estranged from God.
The purpose of Christ's reconciliation is: a changed life. It's not just changed opinions. It's not just a new perspective on life — though it surely is that. The purpose of reconciliation is to turn those who (in their ignorance) were enemies of God into people who are friends of God — and whose lives reflect God's holiness.
I'm glad I encountered the Gospel among people who believed that God's grace and power changes our lives. It's not just about what we believe. It's about who we are — and who we are becoming. This is my ongoing debt to the Holiness camp meeting where I first responded to the message of Christ.
From enemies we are transformed into people who are holy, blameless and free from any accusation before God. Anyone’s life is open to criticism. Our behavior may not seem so blameless to people around us. It matters how God sees it. It matters whether we have a heart wholly devoted to God's will. The essence of holiness is to love God with all our heart mind, soul and strength — and our neighbors as ourselves.
So, this act of reconciliation turns our inner selves outward toward God and others. We are turned from self-seeking and self-obsessed beings to people who seek what is best for others. Our life of faith is about holiness from the start. It is about becoming less like the rebellious Adam and more like the serving and giving Christ.
Reconciliation is more than a ticket to heaven. It is a whole new life. When we speak of Christian salvation we are speaking of something far greater than simply a change of opinions. We speak of something greater than a change of ultimate destinations. We speak of a present change in our life and behavior.
By salvation I mean, not barely, according to the vulgar notion, deliverance from hell, or going to heaven; but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity; a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of our souls after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy, and truth. This implies all holy and heavenly tempers, and, by consequence, all holiness of conversation.
The 'vulgar' notion that Wesley is rejecting here reduces salvation to God's forgiveness of our guilt as sinners, which frees us from future condemnation. While this may pick up the theme of Romans 1-3, it omits an equally biblical theme that can be represented by Romans 7-8, where the deepest impact of sin is our spiritual debilitation ('What I want to do, I cannot!') and God's gracious gift is the Spirit that enables our spiritual healing. Reflecting the “whole tenor of Scripture,” Wesley encouraged his contemporaries to seek and to enjoy the benefits of truly holistic salvation, where God's forgiveness is woven into God's broader gracious purpose of our present spiritual transformation.
3.) The condition of reconciliation: "...provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard...."
The condition is ongoing faith. Yes, salvation can be lost. But, it need not be. Those who persevere to the end will be saved. People can turn their back on God — but, they need not! The faith can be kept, by the power of God's Spirit. Our trust is in God's grace, not the perfectness of our faith.
Final salvation depends upon an abiding, continuing relationship with Christ.
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned." (John 15:1-6 NRSV.)
This is the teaching of the whole New Testament: it is those who remain stedfast in their faith who will be finally saved.
This explains why the apostle Paul was so concerned about the influence of false teaching in the church. It could shift people from their secure hope in Christ. This explains why he spent so much time emphasizing the importance of Christ as the focus of faith in verses 15-20. He wants them to remain within the faith. He wants them to continue and grow in that faith. He is afraid that the false teachings that have found their way into the Colossians church will shift their hope away from Christ to other spirits: what he calls elsewhere the "worship of angels."
If ye continue in the faith — Otherwise, ye will lose all the blessings which ye have already begun to enjoy.
"Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God." (Colossians 2:18, 19 NRSV).
This explains the apostle's motivation in writing this letter. They are in danger of losing their connection with Christ. And, it is a very real danger.
4.) The scope of reconciliation: "...which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven." Notice also verse 2: "through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven...." And, compare 2 Cor 5:19: "in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself...."
If there is only one God, then it follows that that God is the God of all people — whether they know it or not. Somehow, in ways we do not fully know, God's will and purpose embraces all the human race. Even the ancient prophets knew this.
"In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
"Many peoples shall come and say,
'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.'
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
"He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more." (Isaiah 2:1-4 NRSV).
The offer of salvation is for all. Christ's death and resurrection were the demonstration of God's love for all people.
This is the apostle's role as he understands it: to bring this message of hope to as many people as he can, as effectively as he can.
A similar sentiment is expressed in 2 Corinthians 5:20: "So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God." (NRSV)
He doesn't desire a title of great renown. He claims for himself the title of servant (διάκονος) of the gospel. His role in life is to bring that message of Good News. He was not himself the center of the message: the message was about Christ. It was about what God had done in Christ. It was about a reconciliation that was available to anyone who would have it. Paul was only the bearer of the message.
The true goal of a faithful preacher is to bring people to Christ. True Christian preachers do not point to themselves. They point people to God through Christ.
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