November 10: Colossians 1:18a

Colossians 1:18a

kai\ au)to/$ e)stin h( kefalh\ tou= sw/mato$ th=$ e)kklhsi/a$
“and he is the head of the body,
(the head) of th(ose) called out”

The second couplet of vv. 17-18a is clearly parallel to the first (discussed in the previous note), each beginning with kai\ au)to/$ e)stin (“and he is…”), further developing the relative clauses in the stanzas, o%$ e)stin… (“who is…”). It thus represents a further Christological declaration, regarding who Jesus (the Son) is. As mentioned previously, the couplets of vv. 17-18a are transitional, set between the two stanzas of the hymn; the first couplet (v. 17) continues the theme of the first stanza, while the second couplet (here in v. 18a) begins the thematic focus of the second. The first stanza deals with the first creation (i.e. the current created order), while the second stanza deals specifically with the new creation.

While I treat v. 18a above as a poetic couplet, it could just as easily be understood as a single line: “and he is the head of the body of th(ose) called out”. Metrically, this would be correct; however, the force of the genitival chain could then be misinterpreted, since, in my view, the second genitive (th=$ e)kklhsi/a$) is explicative and in apposition. In other words, “of th(ose) called out” explains what “the body” is in context—i.e., “he is the head of the body, (that is, he is the head) of the e)kklhsi/a.”

The noun e)kklhsi/a derives from the verb e)kkale/w (“call out”); it thus refers to a group of people called out (i.e., out of their individual homes) to gather or assemble together. It came to be used in a specialized sense among early Christians, both for the local gatherings of believers, and for believers generally. It is often translated as “church” in the New Testament, but this is quite inaccurate as a literal rendering; “congregation” is closer to the mark, and, while still not entirely accurate, adequately conveys the sense of the term. While Paul certainly would apply its meaning here to the local congregation, it more properly refers to believers as a whole (i.e., all believers), parallel with “all [pa=$] (the) things” in the cosmos.

The head [kefalh/] / body [sw=ma] imagery represents a distinctly Pauline concept, and may have been introduced by him into early Christian parlance. To be sure, the idea of a prominent or leading person being referred to as “head” is basic enough, and kefalh/ is often used this way (cf. LXX Deut 28:13; Judg 10:18, etc); Paul draws upon this basic usage in 1 Cor 11:2-16, applying it in an anthropological (and socio-religious) sense, in accordance with Jewish tradition (and the Genesis creation account, 1:26f; 2:21-23). Paul appears especially drawn to the metaphor of believers as the “body of Christ”, since it features prominently in both 1 Corinthians (12:12-27) and Romans (12:4-5). In Paul’s thinking, this prominence is likely derived from the more primitive (and fundamental) concept of believers participating in the death and resurrection of Jesus (that is, of his physical/human body). While intrinsic to the symbolism of the baptism ritual, Paul gave to this idea a greater theological depth and significance, which he expounds powerfully at key points in his letters (see esp. Gal 2:19-20; 3:27-28 and Rom 6:1-11; 8:9-11ff). This participation is specifically described in relation to “the body of Christ” in Rom 7:4 and 1 Cor 10:16ff (context of the Lord’s Supper) and 12:13ff (context of baptism). The resurrection aspect of our participation is, of course, emphasized strongly in 1 Cor 15:35-53. Other key “body” references are 2 Cor 4:10 and Phil 3:21.

Interestingly, in all of these “body” passages, there is no specific mention of Jesus as the “head” (kefalh/), not even in the famous exposition of the illustration in 1 Cor 12:12-27. One may say, however, that the idea is implicit in the metaphor itself, even if the term kefalh/ is not used. Whether or not Paul actually wrote Ephesians, the prominence of the headship motif in that letter, using the noun kefalh/ (1:22; 4:15; 5:23), likely represents a genuine development of the Pauline concept. Much the same can be said of the references in Colossians (2:10, 19), including here in the hymn. In my view, as I have previously stated, the evidence is stronger for Pauline authorship of Colossians than for Ephesians, and, if so, then the use of kefalh/ here may be identified as Paul’s own. It would also tend to confirm the view that vv. 17-18a, if not the entire hymn, represents his own composition (and unique contribution).

We must, however, keep in mind the parallelism of v. 18a with v. 17 (and with the first stanza of the hymn). In this respect, the chief point being made in v. 18a is that Jesus’ position as “head” over all believers is comparable to his exalted/ruling position over all creation—with believers in Christ representing the beginning of the new creation. The head/body imagery indicates both position (i.e., head at the top) and connectivity (i.e., the head is united with the body).

Moreover, the parallelism of the two couplets means that the emphasis on position here should inform how we understand the preposition pro/ (“before”) in v. 17 (cf. the discussion in the previous note). The head motif here serves as a strong, if not decisive, argument that the positional-relational aspect of pro/ is in view; that is to say, Jesus’ is “before” all things in the sense, primarily, that he has a ruling position over all things, rather than that he existed prior to the creation of the world. While the idea of Jesus’ pre-existence is very much present in the hymn, it is not the primary point of reference or emphasis.

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