November 15: Colossians 1:19

Colossians 1:19

o%ti e)n au)tw=| eu)do/khsen pa=n to\ plh/rwma katoikh=sai
“(for it was) that in him He thought it good (for) all the fullness to put down house [i.e., to dwell]”

Verse 19 builds upon the previous statements in v. 18 with an epexegetical (explanatory) o%ti-clause. This clause should be distinguished from the i%na-clause in v. 18c (discussed in the previous note), which givens the reason or purpose why Jesus was made the a)rxh/, the “one first brought forth [prwto/toko$] out of the dead”. This reason was stated as:

“(so) that [i%na] he should come to be (the one) being [i.e. who is] first in all (thing)s” (18c)

This “being first” (vb prwteu/w) is clearly tied to the resurrection of Jesus, and, in particular, to his exaltation to heaven alongside (‘at the right hand of’) God the Father. This exalted position is a position of rule over the cosmos (“all things”), over the new creation, which is currently realized only for believers in Christ.

Now a further explanation (and interpretation) is given in v. 19, beginning with the conjunctive particle o%ti, “(for it was) that…”. The purpose of God in exalting Jesus was expressed in v. 18c by the subjunctive ge/nhtai (“he should come to be”) in combination with the particle i%na: “so that he should come to be…”. Now in v. 19, the Divine wish is expressed by the verb eu)doke/w (“think good of, consider good”). This is something of a Pauline term, as it occurs primarily (11 times) in his letters. Nearly all of the occurrences elsewhere are tied to the Gospel tradition of Divine voice at Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:11 par), echoed in the Transfiguration episode (Matt 17:5; 2 Pet 1:17). This early tradition must be considered foundational for the use of the verb here in the Christ hymn, and likely reflects the Servant Song of Isa 42:1ff (LXX), a passage cited prominently in Matt 12:18-21.

The wording of this Isaian passage should be considered carefully, especially the first three lines:

“See, my Servant, I take hold on him,
my Chosen One, (whom) my soul favors;
I have given my Spirit upon him…”

This is a translation from the Hebrew; the Greek version (LXX) is reasonably accurate, in general, but differs significantly in detail, in terms of its syntax and parsing of the lines. The Greek verb eu)doke/w corresponds to the Hebrew hx*r* (“show favor, receive favorably”); however, in the LXX reading, the verb is more properly connected with the third line, and the action of God putting His Spirit upon the Chosen One. This shift in emphasis is well-suited for the Baptism-tradition, in which the descent of the Spirit to Jesus precedes the announcement by the Divine voice. In other words, God shows His favor to Jesus by giving him the Spirit.

It seems likely that the hymn is drawing upon the same well-established tradition here. And, if so, then it has a profound significance on the meaning of the clause. Let us follow the parallel:

    • The Isaian poem:
      • God thought good to favor His Servant (pai=$ in Greek, which can also mean “child, son”) by
        • giving His Spirit upon him
    • The Baptism tradition:
      • The Divine/Heavenly voice announces that He (God) thinks good of Jesus, His Son, and so favors him by
        • the descent of the Spirit on him
    • The Colossians hymn:
      • It is declared that God thought it good for Jesus (His Son) that
        • “all the fullness (was) to dwell” in him (19b)

The implication here is that v. 19b should be interpreted in terms of the coming of the Spirit upon Jesus, and its indwelling presence in him. Before we follow through on this line of interpretation, it is necessary to look more closely at the actual wording in the second part of v. 19. The key phrase is:

pa=n to\ plh/rwma katoikh=sai

This comprised of three terms, each of which must be examined.

pa=n (“all”)—a neuter form of the adjective pa=$, which has been used repeatedly (6 times) throughout the earlier lines of the hymn (vv. 15-19). In the context of the hymn, the adjective has universal, cosmic significance, referring to “all things”, all that is in the universe, all of creation. Here, the adjective modifies the neuter noun plh/rwma and must be understood within that immediate context.

plh/rwma (“filling, fullness”)—a neuter noun derived from plhro/w (“fill”); it can be used in either an active (i.e., the act of filling) or passive sense (i.e., that which is filled). It is more common in the New Testament (17 times) than in the LXX (15 times total), and is something of a distinctive Pauline term—of the 17 NT occurrences, 12 are in the Pauline letters (including 4 in Ephesians). Like the adjective pa=$, Paul uses the word plh/rwma in a general, comprehensive sense, applied to a range of situations. Several of these are particularly notable:

    • The eschatological context of Rom 11:12, 25, with the “fullness” of the people of God (both Israelites/Jews and Gentiles) thus tied to the theme of the central place of believers in the ‘new creation’.
    • The citation of Psalm 24:1 in 1 Cor 10:26, emphasizing that the “fullness” of creation belongs to God (as its Ruler).
    • The Christological-theological reference that follows in Col 2:9 (cf. below).

What of the usage here in the hymn? The point of reference is not specified—the “fullness” of what? There are two possibilities: (1) it refers to the fullness of creation (i.e., all of creation), or (2) it is a reference to the fullness of God (i.e., His presence). The other Pauline occurrences of plh/rwma (outside of Colossians), noted above, along with the repeated use of the comprehensive adjective pa=$ (“all [things]”) here in the hymn, strongly suggests the former view (#1). On the other hand, the use of the verb katoike/w that follows, as well as the other occurrence of plh/rwma in Col 2:9, is an equally strong argument for the latter (#2). The rather evenly divided evidence, together with the importance of the interpretive question, requires that we devote a second note to continuing the discussion.

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