Colossians 1:19 (continued)
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]”
The interpretation of verse 19 hinges upon the meaning of the neuter noun plh/rwma (“filling, fullness”). In the previous note, we examined the Pauline usage of the word, and put forth two main lines of interpretation for its meaning here in the hymn:
- It refers to the fullness of creation—i.e., all of creation [Option #1]
- It refers to the fullness of God, His presence [Option #2]
As I noted, view #1 is favored by the occurrences of plh/rwma in the Pauline letters (outside of Colossians), as well as by the general context of the hymn, with its repeated reference to “all” (pa=$) of creation (“all things,” etc). According to this view, to say that “all the fullness” is “in him” (i.e., in Jesus the Son) is comparable to the statement in v. 16 that “all things” (in the first creation) were established/created “in him”.
However, there are two factors which argue rather decisively in favor of view #2. The first of these is the use of the verb katoike/w that follows in v. 19. The verb means “put down house”, i.e., “dwell”, in the sense of a permanent residence, as opposed to the related paroike/w (dwell alongside, in a temporary dwelling). It is a common enough word, especially in (historical) narrative, and occurs more than 680 times in the LXX. It is similarly used quite often in the narratives of the book of Acts, but is relatively rare in the remainder of the New Testament, and is never used in the Pauline letters outside of Colossians and Ephesians.
In a number of Old Testament passages (LXX), katoike/w is used in a specialized sense, for the dwelling of God (YHWH) on earth among His people—cf. 2 Sam 7:6; 1 Kings 8:27; Psalm 22 :4; 68 :17; 132 :14; Isa 8:18, etc. From the standpoint of ancient religious tradition, the presence of YHWH, in relation to humankind (His people), was located in the Tabernacle/Temple, both in a symbolic and ritual sense. One of the distinctive developments in early Christianity involved a shift from the Temple to the person of Jesus. This shift goes back to the Gospel tradition and certain key sayings by Jesus himself; it continued, and developed even further, among early Christians as believers were increasingly separated from the Jewish Temple ritual. For more on this subject, cf. my earlier article in the series “Jesus and the Law”, the study on “Eschatology and the Temple,” and also the article on “The Temple and Torah Observance” in Luke-Acts.
What this shows is the strong identification by early Christians of Jesus (his person) as the location of God’s presence. And, by extension, God’s presence, as well as the presence of the exalted Jesus himself, dwelt in and among believers through the Spirit. This readily explains Paul’s application of the Temple-motif to believers, who are now defined as the holy dwelling-place of the Spirit of God (i.e., His presence) and Christ (1 Cor 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; cf. also Eph 2:21).
The second piece of evidence to consider is the parallel use of the word plh/rwma, along with the verb katoike/w, in Col 2:9. Even if the hymn originally used these terms in a different sense (which is doubtful), the statement in 2:9 demonstrates how the author of the letter (Paul) understood their meaning in context. Here is the statement:
“(for it is) that in him all the fullness [plh/rwma] of the qeo/th$ puts down house [katoikei=, i.e. dwells] bodily”
This clause is formally quite similar to that in v. 19 of the hymn, being virtually a quotation of it. And, in this instance, “all the fullness” is qualified as being “of the qeo/th$“. The noun qeo/th$ is a bit difficult to translate in English; fundamentally, it means “God-ness”, i.e., what it means to be God, the presence and power of God, etc. In English, the word is typically rendered “deity”, while the familiar “Godhead” (KJV) is an overloaded term that implies, for many readers, a doctrine of the Trinity that is quite out of place here in a mid-1st century hymn. Also difficult is the adverb swmatikw=$, related to the adjective swmatiko/$; it is derived from the word sw=ma (“body”), and essentially refers to something that is done, or takes place, in a body (i.e., physically). The head-body motif in verse 17 makes clear that sw=ma can be used readily in a figurative sense, and, since the same metaphor occurs again in 2:10, we must be cautious about reading it in a narrow anthropological-biological sense in v. 9.
How, then, should we understand “all the fullness” of God’s presence “putting down house” in Jesus? I would highlight four main possibilities:
- In terms of the eternal pre-existence of the Son of God [#1]
- Pre-existence, in the specific context of God’s act of creation [#2]
- The Incarnation—the existence of the pre-existent Son as a human being [#3]
- The resurrection and exaltation of Jesus [#4]
The last of these (#4) is unquestionably the context of the second stanza (vv. 18-20) of the hymn; however, the use of the adverb swmatikw=$ in 2:9 suggests the idea of incarnation (#3, cp. John 1:14, and the use of plh/rwma in v. 16); while the influence of Wisdom/Logos tradition in the hymn, discussed in the prior notes, would argue in favor of #2. It has been popular to read 1:19 and 2:9 according to view #1, but in such cases, readers and commentators have been unduly influenced by post-Nicene orthodoxy and later Christological concerns.
Since stanza 2 of the hymn deals with the new creation, beginning with the resurrection of Jesus, our interpretation of v. 19 must start at that point. Paul, following the basic contours of the early Christology, understood the presence of God in Jesus primarily in terms of the resurrection/exaltation. He expresses this most powerfully in his famous resurrection discussion in 1 Corinthians 15, where he states that the resurrected Jesus came to be (made) “into a life-making Spirit” (v. 45). By this, Paul seems to have in mind a complete union of Spirit, whereby God the Father and Jesus (the Son) come to be one Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 6:17), so that a person can speak of the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ interchangeably.
At the same time, Paul appears to have held at least a rudimentary pre-existence Christology, even though this is not emphasized especially in his letters. It is attested by the Christ hymn of Phil 2:6-11 (discussed at length in prior notes), as well as the references to God sending His Son (Gal 4:4; Rom 8:3). Doubtless, Paul would have affirmed something along the lines of John 1:14-16ff, though he might not use precisely the same language.
As a result of these factors, we are justified in extending the sense of Col 2:9 to include the broader concept of the incarnation of the pre-existent Son of God. In particular, the emphasis is on the full presence (and power) of God manifest in the person of Jesus, even during his life (and death) on earth. It was this divine power, ultimately, which raised Jesus from the dead and transformed him into the “life-giving Spirit”. In early Christian tradition, the moment where this “filling” of God’s presence took place is clearly the baptism of Jesus, when the Spirit descended upon him (cf. the discussion in the previous note). After this point, the Spirit dwelt in/on Jesus during his life, though it is only in the Gospel of Luke that the specific terminology of being “filled” with the Spirit is used (4:1; on the Lukan idiom, cf. also 1:15, 41, 67; Acts 2:4; 4:8, 31; 6:3, etc).
Believers eventually came to locate the “filling” of Jesus by God’s Presence/Spirit at the moment of his birth as a human being; this is indicated specifically only in John 1:14ff, though it is implied in the Infancy narratives (esp. Luke 1:35, on the motif of God’s presence dwelling with His chosen ones, cf. verse 28ff). Based on Paul’s wording in Gal 4:4 and Rom 1:3, he may well have admitted much the same, in terms of the incarnation of the Son of God; however, he otherwise says nothing at all in his letters regarding Jesus’ birth.
In the next daily note (on v. 20), we will examine how the presence of God in the person of Jesus—especially in terms of his death and resurrection—fulfills God’s ultimate purpose for the new creation.