November 17: Colossians 1:20a

Colossians 1:20a

kai\ di’ au)tou= a)pokatalla/cai ta\ pa/nta ei)$ au)to/n
“and through him to make all (thing)s different (again), unto him”

This line builds upon v. 19 (discussed in the previous notes), poetically exhibiting synthetic parallelism—meaning that the statement in the second line is the result (or consequence) of that in the first. In particular the infinitive a)pokatalla/cai is parallel with katoikh=sai in v. 19. The fullness of God dwelling in Jesus leads to “making all things different”. There are, however, two key points which are crucial for interpreting v. 20a:

    1. The precise meaning of the double-compound verb a)pokatalla/ssw, and
    2. The relation between the prepositional expressions di’ au)tou= (“through him”) and ei)$ au)to/n (“unto him”)

Let consider each of these in turn.

1. The root of the compound verb a)pokatalla/ssw is a)lla/ssw, which means “make different”, or to “transform” —i.e., to “change (one thing) into another [a&llo$]”. It is a relatively common verb, but which, by its denotation, tends to be used only in certain contexts. It occurs 42 times in the LXX, and 6 times in the New Testament; of these, 4 are by Paul in his letters, including in two notable passages: Rom 1:23 and 1 Cor 15:51-52.

In Romans 1:23, the verb connotes an exchange, in the context of Paul’s interesting outline regarding the development of pagan (polytheistic) religion. Humankind, it is said, changed things (h&llacan) by giving the honor (do/ca) that belongs to the one true God to other false ‘deities’ (represented by idols/images) instead. Thus, an important aspect of the created order was corrupted, producing a situation by which humankind became estranged and hostile to God. In 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, the verb is used (twice) in reference to the resurrection of humankind (believers). These two passages are significant for the context of v. 20 in our hymn. The first implies the corruption of the first creation, while the second references the beginning of the new creation (i.e., the resurrection of believers).

The compound verb katalla/ssw is rather more rare, occurring just 4 times in the LXX (Jer 48 [31]:39; 2 Macc 1:5; 7:33; 8:29). The prepositional prefix kata/ may simply be an emphatic element, but it is significant that the compound verb often connotes a change in a situation that restores a relationship, e.g., between two people (or parties) that have become estranged or hostile to each other (i.e., being ‘against’ [kata] one another). In the New Testament, it is a distinctly Pauline term, with all 6 occurrences found in just three passages in Paul’s letters—Rom 5:10; 1 Cor 7:11; 2 Cor 5:18-20. In 1 Cor 7:11 it is used in the practical context of maintaining the marriage bond, i.e., reconciling when there may be conflict, and thus avoiding a separation or divorce. The occurrences in Rom 5:10 and 2 Cor 5:18-20 are more significant, theologically (and Christologically), and are directly relevant to the use of the double-compound verb in the hymn:

“…being (one)s (who were) hostile, we are made different (now) to God through the death of His Son, (and) much more—(hav)ing been made different, we will be saved in [i.e. through] his life” (Rom 5:10)

Salvation is defined here in an eschatological sense, related to the end-time resurrection of believers into eternal life. The cosmic aspect of this transformation is emphasized in 2 Cor 5:18ff:

“if any(one is) in the Anointed (One), (he is) a new foundation [kti/si$ i.e., creation]—the old (thing)s have come [i.e. passed] along, (and) see! they have come to be new—and all th(ese thing)s (are) out of [i.e. come from] God, the (One hav)ing made (things) different for us with Himself through (the) Anointed, and (hav)ing given to us the service [i.e. ministry] of making (things) different [katallgh/], even as (it was) that God was in (the) Anointed, making (things) different for (the) world with Himself…”

There are clearly certain key similarities of thought and terminology between this passage and the Colossians hymn, including the parallel of a transformation of humankind (believers) with the transformation of the world (ko/smo$, the created order) itself. In each instance the compound verb kata/llassw is used, capturing the nuance of reconciliation and restoration within the broader idea of “making (things) different”. The relationship involved is between creation (esp. humankind) and God.

The hymn uses the double-compound a)pokatalla/ssw, which occurs only here in Colossians (1:20 and 22), and once in Ephesians (2:16). As far as I am aware, it remains unattested in Greek outside of the New Testament and early Christian writings. The use of the double-prefix a)po + kata/ may be emphatic or stylistic, but likely is meant to emphasize the idea of restoration—back to a situation that existed before. That is certainly the sense of the verb a)pokaqi/sthmi (and related noun a)pokata/stasi$), which involves the same double-prefix (cf. Acts 1:6; 3:21, etc). The parallelism of the stanzas of the hymn, dealing with the theme of creation, would suggest that the new creation represents, in at least some sense, a restoration of the first creation. From the standpoint of Pauline theology, this may refer to entrance of sin and evil into the original created order—cf. especially Romans 5:12ff, in the context of v. 10. Admittedly, there is no specific reference to sin in the Colossians hymn, but it would seem to be rather clearly implied in the idea of humankind being estranged and hostile to God (cp. Col 1:21f with Rom 5:1-11). Gentile believers, in particular, prior to coming to trust in Jesus, were separated from God, in the sense that they were outside of the covenant (between God and Israel). All of this changed (and was made different) through the new covenant, which brings about the new creation.

2. In all other occurrences of a)lla/ssw (or katalla/ssw) cited above, the transformation (and restoration/reconciliation) involves the relation between humankind (believers) and God. Thus, we are said to be reconciled, our situation made different, “with God” or in relation “to God”, typically expressed through the use of the dative case (without a preposition)—[tw=|] qew=|, or with the reflexive pronoun (e(autw=|, “with/to Himself”). This terminology suggests that, in the prepositional expression ei)$ au)to/n (“unto him”) in v. 20a, the pronoun refers to God the Father. However, all other occurrences of the personal pronoun (or relative pronoun) in the hymn refer to Jesus the Son, including a range of similar prepositional phrases (“in him”, “through him”, etc). Moreover, the combination of di’ au)tou= and ei)$ au)to/n here is precisely parallel with the same combination that occurs in v. 16, referring the Son’s role and place in the first creation. Thus, we must view the two expressions in v. 20 similarly—i.e., as referring to the exalted Jesus’ role and place in the new creation.

In this regard, we have to consider the significance of the usage in v. 16:

    • di’ au)tou= (“through him”)—like the divine Wisdom/Logos of Jewish tradition, the Son is the means by which God created the cosmos, and the pattern (or lens) through which it was created.
    • ei)$ au)to/n (“unto/into him”)—the creation corresponds to the image/pattern of God manifest in the Son, who also represents the goal and purpose for which the world was created

I would argue that essentially the same meaning applies to the new creation in the second stanza: the new creation (beginning with believers in Christ) is established by God through Jesus, and finds its purpose and completion unto/into him. What is special about this new creation is its transformational aspect, indicated by the use of the verb –a)lla/ssw. This will be discussed further, in the context of v. 20b, in the next daily note.

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