November 19: Colossians 1:20c

Colossians 1:20c

[di’ au)tou=] ei&te ta\ e)pi\ th=$ gh=$ ei&te ta\ e)n toi=$ ou)ranoi=$
“(all this is) [through him], whether the (thing)s upon the earth or the (thing)s in the heavens”

This line concludes the second stanza, and also forms the conclusion to the hymn as a whole.

The first point to address is text-critical. The initial words di’ au)tou= (“through him”) are absent from a relatively wide range of textual witnesses (B D* G 81 1739 and among the Latin, Coptic [Sahidic], Armenian, and Ethiopic versions). However, they are present in an equally wide range of witnesses (Ë46 a A C Dc 614, and portions of the Syriac and Coptic versions, etc). The external (manuscript) evidence is rather evenly divided. Internal considerations are also far from decisive. Since the same expression occurred earlier in the verse (cf. the prior note on v. 20a), it could easily have been deleted here as superfluous, or by accident (haplography); or, on the other hand, it may have been repeated as a mistake in copying (dittography). The inclusion of the words would seem to represent the more difficult or unusual reading, and so perhaps should be retained on the principle of lectio difficilior probabilior (“the more difficult reading is probable”, i.e., is more likely to be original). The Nestle-Aland critical text retains the words, but in square brackets to indicate their uncertain or disputed status; this is probably the wisest approach, and I have adopted it above.

If the words di’ au)tou= are original, their repetition from 20a must be considered emphatic (but note their place in the outline below). They give special emphasis to the fact that the transformation, even of all things in creation, is brought about by God through Jesus the Son. This cosmic aspect of the hymn is expressed in a number of ways, most notably by the repeated use of the comprehensive adjective pa=$ (“all”)—8 times in the hymn, including five instances of the objective plural ta\ pa/nta (“all [thing]s”). The pre-existent Son of God played a central role in the original creation of “all things” (the subject of the first stanza), and now the exalted Jesus plays a similar role in the new creation (second stanza).

As the second stanza makes clear, it is the death and resurrection of Jesus that brings about the transformation of the cosmos. But how should this be so? The removal of the effects of sin and impurity on humankind can reasonably be derived from the significance of the sacrificial ritual in the ancient covenant setting. But how would this apply to the cosmos as a whole, without the context of a personal relationship (covenant-bond)? Here the unique theology developed by Paul provides an explanation. Three passages can be mentioned: chapters 5 and 8 of Romans, and the discussion on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.

In Romans 5 the parallel is clearly drawn between human sin and the corruption of the created order. The effect of sin is undone (or reversed) by Jesus in his role as a ‘second’ Adam. This focus is soteriological, but it expands to include an eschatological dimension in chapter 8. All of creation, personified as a human being, groans under the bondage (of sin, evil, and death) in the current Age, awaiting its liberation. And, just as believers in Christ have been freed from bondage to the power of sin, so all of the cosmos will one day be liberated. The sequence is clear: first, Jesus is raised from the dead; second, those who trust in him participate in the same life-giving power (of God’s Spirit); third, at the end of the current Age, this resurrection will be realized when believers are raised from the dead, after the pattern of Jesus; and, finally, all of creation will be ‘reborn’, in the pattern of the resurrection of Jesus the Son (and believers as the sons/children of God). The New Age will involve a “new heaven and a new earth”, just as human beings (believers) are changed in to a “new creation”. The transformation of the cosmos in terms of resurrection is an important theme of 1 Cor 15 as well (vv. 20-28, 42-56).

There is a similar corollary between humankind and the cosmos here in the Christ hymn, and could be used as a reasonably strong argument in favor of Pauline authorship of the hymn. In my view, the line of thought and imagery resembles that expressed by Paul in the passages noted above—especially Romans 5. There, in the first half of that passage (in vv. 8-11), Paul describes the effect of sin in creating hostility between humankind and God; but the death of Jesus has restored the relationship. Similarly, in the more famous second half, it is narrated how sin has corrupted the world, so that, in the current Age, sin now rules as king (v. 14). The power of sin and death is itself undone by Jesus’ death (and resurrection), transformed into a reign of righteousness and life (vv. 18-21). However, this transformation will not be realized until the end of the current Age; for the moment, it is experienced only by believers, through the presence of the Spirit.

The New Age for believers, in union with Christ, was expressed in the hymn through the head-body (‘body of Christ’) idiom of v. 18a. Then, in the second stanza proper, this central theme is expounded within the same matrix of cosmology-soteriology-eschatology we find in the Pauline passages cited above. Let us see how this may be expressed in terms of the syntax and thematic structure of the stanza:

  • “who is” —Jesus (the Son) is the one who is
    • “the beginning” —that is, of the new creation, defined as
    • “the first (one) brought forth out of the dead” —resurrection
      • “so that” —the purpose of the resurrection/creation is
        • “he should be (the one who is) first in all (thing)s” —the exaltation of Jesus
      • “(for it was) that” —what brings about his resurrection/exaltation is that
        • “in him” —in the person of Jesus the Son
          • “(God) considered it good (for) all the fullness to put down house” —the incarnation, Jesus filled with the Presence/Spirit of God
        • “through him” —through the work of Jesus
          • “(for God) to make all things different (again)” —the power to restore/transform creation
            • “unto him” —according to the pattern and goal of Jesus the Son
          • “making peace” —undoing the effect of sin, restoring the bond with God
        • “through the blood of his cross” —through his death
      • “[through him]” —all of this takes place through the person of and work of Jesus, so that
    • “the things upon and earth and the things in the heavens” —the complete transformation of the new creation

The strands of thought running through the stanza are complex and powerful. In some ways the cosmological aspect is primary—that is, both stanzas deal primarily with creation. The first stanza focuses on the first (original) creation, the second on the new creation. The resurrection of Jesus ‘restores’ him to his exalted place alongside God the Father in heaven (cp. the descent/ascent paradigm in the Philippians hymn), but it also transforms him into the life-giving Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 15:45). Through the exalted Jesus, God gives life to the new creation, even as He did in the original creation. From his exalted position, Jesus is first, ruling over all things in creation.

While these themes are not unique to Paul in early Christianity, it is his writings which gave to them their finest and definitive expression, and the splendid, ever-provocative hymn of Colossians 1:15-20—whether composed by Paul himself, or simply adapted by him—may fairly be said to represent the high point of this expression.

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