November 18: Colossians 1:20b

Colossians 1:20b

ei)rhnopoih/sa$ dia\ tou= ai%mato$ tou= staurou= au)tou=
“(hav)ing made peace through his blood of the stake [i.e. cross]”

This line is subordinate to that in v. 20a, and is epexegetical, explaining the sense of the clause—i.e., what it means for God “to make all things different (again)” (a)pokatalla/cai ta\ pa/nta). The use of the compound verb a)pokatalla/ssw in v. 20a was discussed in the previous note; the primary sense of the root a)lla/ssw (“make different”, “change [one thing] into another”), in its double-compound form, specifically emphasizes the idea of restoration. In this regard, the new creation represents a restoration of the first creation, but also a fundamental transformation. This transformational aspect begins with the resurrection of Jesus, and subsequently of believers in Christ, eventually extending to all of creation (“all things”).

But how, precisely, is this transformation effected? Verse 20b gives the answer: by “making peace through his blood.” The verb ei)rhnopoie/w literally means “make peace [ei)rh/nh]”, and occurs only here in the New Testament, though the related noun ei)rhnopoio/$ (“peace-maker”) also occurs once (in the Matthean Beatitudes, 5:9). The compound verb is equivalent to poie/w + ei)rh/nh, and, as such, is used in the LXX to render the Hebrew <olv* hc*u*. Thus the idea of “making different” here is framed in terms of restoring a relationship (“making peace”) between two persons/parties who have become estranged or hostile to one another.

This is certainly how the author of the letter (Paul) understands and interprets the matter in verse 21, echoing a similar, but more developed line of thought in Romans 5:1-11. The entrance of sin into the world (cf. Rom 5:12ff) has corrupted the first creation, and has led to humankind becoming estranged and hostile (e)xqroi/, ‘enemies’) to God. In Colossians, more so than in Romans, Paul is stressing that things have been “made different” for Gentile believers, in particular. Gentiles were estranged from God in the additional (religious-cultural) sense that they have been outside of the covenant between YHWH and Israel.

The means by which things have been “made different” is the death of Jesus, denoted specifically by the traditional motif of blood, which can be used to refer to death (especially when violent or traumatic) even when no actual bloodshed is involved. Jesus’ death can similarly be referenced by the term stau/ro$, referring to his death at the stake (i.e. crucifixion). Paul makes use of both idioms in his letters, with the “cross” of Jesus being more prominent than the “blood” —cf. Rom 6:6; 1 Cor 1:13, 17-18, 23; 2:2, 8; 13:4; Gal 2:20; 3:1; 5:11, 24; 6:12, 14; Phil 2:8; 3:18; Col 2:14. Apart from his citation of the Last Supper tradition in 1 Cor 11:25-27 (also 10:6), Jesus’ blood is only emphasized in Rom 3:25 and 5:9; these two references are instructive for understanding the place of the blood-motif in Paul’s theology.

In Romans 3:25, the imagery is sacrificial, referring to an offering to God that removes the effect of sin, thus restoring the covenant bond. It is not simply Jesus’ blood, but “trust in his blood” that accomplishes this. The i(lasth/rion, the means by which God is appeased and prompted to show mercy, is through (dia/) the trust in Jesus’ sacrificial death. The expression “through his blood” here in Col 1:20 may be regarded as a corresponding shorthand for this idea. In Romans 5:9, the context has more to do with the general sense of restoring a relationship with God, where the religious-cultural background involves the ancient Near Eastern idea of violating a binding agreement (covenant-bond), which thus breaks the relationship. Paul also makes extensive use of the judicial aspect, connoted by the dikaio– word group; the basic idea is of “making things right” between humankind and God. The covenant-bond has been violated by sin, and the death of Jesus (his “blood”) restores the bond for all those who trust in him. There are a number of key linguistic and thematic points in common between Rom 5:1-10 and the context of the Colossians hymn.

Underlying all of this is the early Gospel tradition of the Last Supper, and the associated saying(s) of Jesus (Mk 14:24 par), the substance of which is attested in three separate lines of early tradition—the Synoptic, Pauline, and Johannine (cf. Jn 6:53-56). According to the core tradition, Jesus’ death fulfills the pattern of the sacrificial offering (and ritual meal) that took place as part of the ratification of the covenant between YHWH and Israel (Exod 24:5-8, 11). Along these lines, Jesus’ death—and specifically his blood—establishes a new covenant for the people of God (believers). It is hard to say how clearly this sacrificial and covenantal background was in view for the author of Colossians (and/or the Christ hymn). If Paul was indeed the author of the letter (and/or the hymn), then surely he would been aware of the religious-cultural background of the blood-motif.

The hymn utilizes both the “blood” and the “cross” of Jesus, in a compound expression: “the blood of his (death at) the stake,” i.e., “his blood of the cross”. This doubly affirms the significance of Jesus’ death. Paul mentions the stake/cross (stauro/$) again at 2:14, where the language (and the point he is making) is closer to that of Galatians, emphasizing how Jesus’ death has freed believers (esp. Gentile believers) from any binding obligation to observe the Torah regulations. These themes in Colossians (including the hymn) are echoed, and expanded upon, in Ephesians—especially 2:11-18ff. Whether or not Paul was the author of Ephesians, there can be no doubt that the letter represents a development of genuine Pauline thought. There is greater prominence given in Ephesians to the unity of Jewish and Gentile believers—the hostility/estrangement eliminated by Jesus’ death was not only between humankind and God, but between Jew and non-Jew as well.

We must keep in mind, however, the cosmic aspect of these themes as they are expressed in the Colossians hymn. Reconciliation and restoration was accomplished for “all things”, not just for human beings (believers) who had been estranged from God. We are accustomed to thinking of soteriology purely in terms of individual, personal salvation; however, Paul, along with other early Christians, had a somewhat broader concept of salvation, one strongly tied to their eschatology. And there is a powerful eschatological dimension to the hymn, which can easily be overlooked. This will be discussed further in the next daily note, on verse 20c (the conclusion to the hymn).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *