Notes on Prayer: Colossians 1:3; 4:2-3, etc

We conclude our series of studies on the references to prayer in the Pauline letters with a survey of the remaining letters—beginning with Philemon and Colossians, and then turning to consider the references in the disputed letters of Ephesians and 1 Timothy.

Philemon 4-6, 22

The letter to Philemon was, of course, written to an individual rather to the collective believers of a city or territory. Even so, the references to prayer follow the same pattern of the other letters addressed to congregations. The references occur in the introduction (thanksgiving) and closing (exhortation) sections of the letter-body, and are framed specifically in terms of the relationship between Paul and his audience. The prayer references in the thanksgiving (vv. 4-7) could have easily been lifted right out of one of the other Pauline letters.

“I give thanks to my God for (His) good favor, always making mention of you in my (time)s of speaking out toward (Him) [proseuxai/], hearing of your love and trust which you hold toward the Lord Yeshua and (directed) to all the holy (one)s, so that the communication of your trust might come to be working in (the) knowledge about every good (thing) that (is) in you for (the sake of the) Anointed…” (vv. 4-6)

Several of the features here we have seen repeatedly:

    • Paul refers to making mention of the believers (here, Philemon) to God regularly during his times in prayer
    • He gives thanks because of their faithfulness in response to the Gospel (as it has been reported to him)—trusting in Jesus, demonstrating love, growing in faith and virtue and understanding
    • He expresses the wish that they continue to remain faithful

But Paul’s prayers are only one side of the relationship that he holds (as an apostle) with the congregations—they are also asked to pray for him. And so Paul would request this of Philemon as well, just as he does at the close of the letter:

“…but also make ready for me a place (of lodging) for the stranger, for I hope that, through your speaking out toward (God) [proseuxai/], I shall be given to you as a favor (from God).” (v. 22)

The middle-passive verb xari/zomai means “show favor, give (something) as a favor”; in the passive, it refers to the gift or favor itself. It is related to the verb eu)xariste/w in v. 4, which, in a religious context, refers to the favor shown by God, and the gratitude or thanks that we show to Him (in response) for this favor. Here, the favor God will show, through the cooperation of Philemon in his prayers, is to allow Paul the opportunity to visit him.

Colossians 1:3, 9

The prayer references in Colossians follow the same Pauline pattern. The first references occur in the introduction (exordium), which may be divided into two sections—the first containing the thanksgiving (1:3-8), and the second, Paul’s exhortational prayer-wish for the Colossian believers (1:9-14). The opening reference to prayer in the thanksgiving (v. 3) is virtually identical to the statement in Philemon 4 (cf. above). Notably, the statement in Colossians is given in the first-person plural: “We give thanks to God for (His) good favor…always over you, speaking out toward (Him) [proseuxo/menoi]”. In Colossians, Paul gives particular emphasis to his co-workers and fellow missionaries, and so the plural here is significant (cf. verse 7, and further below).

As is typical for Paul, his thanksgiving effectively takes the form of praise for the faithfulness of the believers he is addressing. Specific mention is made of their trust and love, remaining firm in the truth of the Gospel (vv. 4-5), as also of their growth in virtue and understanding (vv. 6-7), and of unity in the Spirit.

The second prayer-reference in the introduction, correspondingly, comes at the opening of the exhortational prayer-wish in vv. 9ff:

“Through [i.e. because of] this we also, from the day on which we heard (this), do not cease speaking out toward (God) [proseuxo/menoi] over you…” (v. 9a)

Paul’s wish (as a prayer to God) is for the Colossians to continue in faith and virtue, growing further in spiritual knowledge and understanding, etc.:

“…and asking (Him) that you would be filled (with) the knowledge about His will, in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (v. 9b)

The remainder of the prayer-wish—also to be characterized as an intercessory request—is phrased in the typical manner of early Christian ethical instruction and exhortation, of which there certainly are a number of Pauline examples:

“…(for you) to walk about (in a manner) up to a level (worthy) of the Lord, into everything (that is) pleasing (to Him), bearing fruit in every good work, and growing in the knowledge of God, being (em)powered in all power, according to the might of His splendor…” (vv. 10-11a)

Also typical of Paul, is the eschatological aspect of this exhortation—a theme that is developed throughout the letter—but nuanced here with a strong dualistic Christological emphasis:

“…(the Father), (hav)ing made us fit for the portion of the lot of the holy (one)s in the light, (and) who rescued us out of the power [e)cousi/a] of darkness and made (us) stand over into the kingdom of His (be)loved Son—in whom we hold the loosing from (bondage), the putting away of sins” (vv. 12-14)

On the Christological hymn (‘Christ hymn’) that follows in vv. 15-20, cf. my earlier series of notes.

Colossians 4:2-3, 12

The Pauline pattern continues with the prayer-references in the closing (exhortation) section of the letter (4:2-6). Typically, in these sections Paul emphasizes the other side of the prayer relationship between himself and the congregations—namely, that they should regularly be praying for him. He leads into this with a general exhortation for the Colossians to remain firm in prayer:

“In speaking out toward (God) [proseuxh/], you must be firm toward (it), keeping awake in it with thanks for (His) good favor” (v. 2)

The verb proskartere/w (“be firm/strong toward [something]”) is a key word characterizing the unity of believers in the early chapters of Acts (1:14; 2:42, 46; 6:4; 8:13; 10:7). Paul also uses it in Romans (12:12; 13:6), and the prayer context of its use in 12:12 is comparable to what we find here. The noun eu)xaristi/a corresponds to the related verb eu)xariste/w in 1:3 (cf. above), emphasizing again the relationship between prayer and the favor God shows to us. As Paul makes clear, there are two aspects to this relationship: (1) we give thanks for the favor God has shown, and (2) we ask that He will continue to show us favor, and that we will act in a manner that is worthy of His favor.

The prayer-emphasis shifts in verse 3:

“…at the same time, also speaking out toward (God) over us, that God would open up for us a door for the account [lo/go$], to speak the secret [musth/rion] of the Anointed, through which I have been bound”

The prayers believers are to make on his behalf typically relate specifically to his missionary work, defined in terms of preaching the Gospel. Here, two key terms are used, in a technical sense, for the Gospel:

    • lo/go$, “account,” that is, a spoken account, shorthand for the expression the “account of God” (Acts 4:31; 6:2, et al)—viz., the account of what God has done through the person of Jesus.
    • musth/rion, “secret” —on this usage, cf. the recent discussion on Rom 16:25-26, as well as my earlier word study series. The Gospel of Christ is a “secret,” hidden throughout all the ages past, and revealed only now, at the present time, through the kerygma (proclamation) by the prophets and apostles of the early Christian mission.

This is a regular theme in Paul’s prayer-references—that believers work together with him (and his fellow missionaries), through their prayers. We have seen repeatedly in our studies the importance of praying for the needs of others, rather than simply for our own needs. It is a key New Testament principle that such selfless and sacrificial prayer is assured of being answered by God.

As in the introduction (cf. above), Paul uses the first-person plural. Sometimes he does this in his letters as a rhetorical device, but here he is specifically including his fellow missionaries and co-workers with him. In the closing that follows in vv. 7-17, Paul mentions ten different persons, among them Epaphras in vv. 12-13. He was mentioned earlier in 1:7, and also in Philemon 23 (both in the context of the prayer-references, cf. above). Epaphras apparently was an apostolic missionary in his own right, and one who would have had much more frequent contact with the congregations of the region. Paul refers to him much as he does to himself, as a “slave” (dou=lo$) of Jesus Christ (Rom 1:1; Gal 1:10; Phil 1:1). In 1:7 the word is su/ndoulo$ (“slave together with [me/us]”), while in Philem 23 he is called “one taken captive [lit. at spearpoint] together with (me)” (sunaixma/lwto$), i.e. “co-prisoner, fellow prisoner”.

Like Paul, Epaphras’ role as an apostolic missionary led him to pray frequently (and fervently) for the believers of that area. Paul describes this here in v. 12 as “struggling over you in his speaking out toward (G0d) [proseuxai/]”. The verb is a)gwni/zomai (“struggle”), used, viz., in athletic competitions; it is something of a Pauline term, as 6 of the 8 NT occurrences are in the Pauline letters (elsewhere, 1 Cor 9:25; Col 1:29; 1 Tim 4:10; 6:12; 2 Tim 4:7). The occurrences of the substantive (verbal noun), a)gw/n, used in a similar context, should also be noted—1 Thess 2:2; Phil 1:30; Col 2:1; 1 Tim 6:12; 2 Tim 4:7. In Paul’s usage, the verb alludes to believers (esp. missionaries) laboring—and enduring suffering—for the sake of the Gospel.




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.

November 18: Colossians 1:20b

Colossians 1:20b

ei)rhnopoih/sa$ dia\ tou= ai%mato$ tou= staurou= au)tou=
“(hav)ing made peace through his blood of the stake [i.e. cross]”

This line is subordinate to that in v. 20a, and is epexegetical, explaining the sense of the clause—i.e., what it means for God “to make all things different (again)” (a)pokatalla/cai ta\ pa/nta). The use of the compound verb a)pokatalla/ssw in v. 20a was discussed in the previous note; the primary sense of the root a)lla/ssw (“make different”, “change [one thing] into another”), in its double-compound form, specifically emphasizes the idea of restoration. In this regard, the new creation represents a restoration of the first creation, but also a fundamental transformation. This transformational aspect begins with the resurrection of Jesus, and subsequently of believers in Christ, eventually extending to all of creation (“all things”).

But how, precisely, is this transformation effected? Verse 20b gives the answer: by “making peace through his blood.” The verb ei)rhnopoie/w literally means “make peace [ei)rh/nh]”, and occurs only here in the New Testament, though the related noun ei)rhnopoio/$ (“peace-maker”) also occurs once (in the Matthean Beatitudes, 5:9). The compound verb is equivalent to poie/w + ei)rh/nh, and, as such, is used in the LXX to render the Hebrew <olv* hc*u*. Thus the idea of “making different” here is framed in terms of restoring a relationship (“making peace”) between two persons/parties who have become estranged or hostile to one another.

This is certainly how the author of the letter (Paul) understands and interprets the matter in verse 21, echoing a similar, but more developed line of thought in Romans 5:1-11. The entrance of sin into the world (cf. Rom 5:12ff) has corrupted the first creation, and has led to humankind becoming estranged and hostile (e)xqroi/, ‘enemies’) to God. In Colossians, more so than in Romans, Paul is stressing that things have been “made different” for Gentile believers, in particular. Gentiles were estranged from God in the additional (religious-cultural) sense that they have been outside of the covenant between YHWH and Israel.

The means by which things have been “made different” is the death of Jesus, denoted specifically by the traditional motif of blood, which can be used to refer to death (especially when violent or traumatic) even when no actual bloodshed is involved. Jesus’ death can similarly be referenced by the term stau/ro$, referring to his death at the stake (i.e. crucifixion). Paul makes use of both idioms in his letters, with the “cross” of Jesus being more prominent than the “blood” —cf. Rom 6:6; 1 Cor 1:13, 17-18, 23; 2:2, 8; 13:4; Gal 2:20; 3:1; 5:11, 24; 6:12, 14; Phil 2:8; 3:18; Col 2:14. Apart from his citation of the Last Supper tradition in 1 Cor 11:25-27 (also 10:6), Jesus’ blood is only emphasized in Rom 3:25 and 5:9; these two references are instructive for understanding the place of the blood-motif in Paul’s theology.

In Romans 3:25, the imagery is sacrificial, referring to an offering to God that removes the effect of sin, thus restoring the covenant bond. It is not simply Jesus’ blood, but “trust in his blood” that accomplishes this. The i(lasth/rion, the means by which God is appeased and prompted to show mercy, is through (dia/) the trust in Jesus’ sacrificial death. The expression “through his blood” here in Col 1:20 may be regarded as a corresponding shorthand for this idea. In Romans 5:9, the context has more to do with the general sense of restoring a relationship with God, where the religious-cultural background involves the ancient Near Eastern idea of violating a binding agreement (covenant-bond), which thus breaks the relationship. Paul also makes extensive use of the judicial aspect, connoted by the dikaio– word group; the basic idea is of “making things right” between humankind and God. The covenant-bond has been violated by sin, and the death of Jesus (his “blood”) restores the bond for all those who trust in him. There are a number of key linguistic and thematic points in common between Rom 5:1-10 and the context of the Colossians hymn.

Underlying all of this is the early Gospel tradition of the Last Supper, and the associated saying(s) of Jesus (Mk 14:24 par), the substance of which is attested in three separate lines of early tradition—the Synoptic, Pauline, and Johannine (cf. Jn 6:53-56). According to the core tradition, Jesus’ death fulfills the pattern of the sacrificial offering (and ritual meal) that took place as part of the ratification of the covenant between YHWH and Israel (Exod 24:5-8, 11). Along these lines, Jesus’ death—and specifically his blood—establishes a new covenant for the people of God (believers). It is hard to say how clearly this sacrificial and covenantal background was in view for the author of Colossians (and/or the Christ hymn). If Paul was indeed the author of the letter (and/or the hymn), then surely he would been aware of the religious-cultural background of the blood-motif.

The hymn utilizes both the “blood” and the “cross” of Jesus, in a compound expression: “the blood of his (death at) the stake,” i.e., “his blood of the cross”. This doubly affirms the significance of Jesus’ death. Paul mentions the stake/cross (stauro/$) again at 2:14, where the language (and the point he is making) is closer to that of Galatians, emphasizing how Jesus’ death has freed believers (esp. Gentile believers) from any binding obligation to observe the Torah regulations. These themes in Colossians (including the hymn) are echoed, and expanded upon, in Ephesians—especially 2:11-18ff. Whether or not Paul was the author of Ephesians, there can be no doubt that the letter represents a development of genuine Pauline thought. There is greater prominence given in Ephesians to the unity of Jewish and Gentile believers—the hostility/estrangement eliminated by Jesus’ death was not only between humankind and God, but between Jew and non-Jew as well.

We must keep in mind, however, the cosmic aspect of these themes as they are expressed in the Colossians hymn. Reconciliation and restoration was accomplished for “all things”, not just for human beings (believers) who had been estranged from God. We are accustomed to thinking of soteriology purely in terms of individual, personal salvation; however, Paul, along with other early Christians, had a somewhat broader concept of salvation, one strongly tied to their eschatology. And there is a powerful eschatological dimension to the hymn, which can easily be overlooked. This will be discussed further in the next daily note, on verse 20c (the conclusion to the hymn).

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.

November 16: Colossians 1:19 (continued)

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 [21]:4; 68 [67]:17; 132 [131]: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.


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.

November 12: Colossians 1:18c

Colossians 1:18c

i%na ge/nhtai e)n pa=sin au)to\$ prwteu/wn
“(so) that he should come to be (the one) being [i.e. who is] first in all (thing)s”

Before proceeding with the final portion of verse 18, it is necessary to pick up the discussion from the previous note, on the use of the adjective prwoto/toko$. I outlined four key avenues of study in this regard:

    1. The fundamental meaning of the adjective
    2. The immediate context of the expression “first-born out of the dead”
    3. The parallel usage in the first stanza (v. 15)
    4. The related use of the verbal adjective prwteu/wn (“being first”) in v. 18c

The first two areas (#1 and 2) were discussed in the previous note. Now let us consider the parallel use of the adjective in verse 15 (on this, cf. also the earlier note). The sequence of the stanzas would naturally lead one to conclude that the meaning of prwto/toko$ in v. 18 should be determined based on its use in the first stanza (cf. Barth/Blanke, p. 207). However, in my view, this approach would be incorrect, since it ignores the fact that the use of the adjective in v. 18 represents the older, established context for applying to the adjective to the person of Jesus.

This context, as discussed in the previous note (on #2 above), is the resurrection of Jesus, which provides the basis for the further application in terms of his pre-existence. Here, the Christ-hymn in Colossians displays the same developmental tendency as the Philippians hymn (2:6-11, discussed in earlier notes). In each hymn, the imagery and language of the older exaltation Christology is adapted and applied to a developing pre-existence Christology—since, by extension, Jesus (the Son) was understood to have held a similar exalted position alongside God the Father, even prior to his life on earth. For this reason, we must maintain that the context of the resurrection informs the use of the adjective prwto/toko$ throughout, in both stanzas.

What does this mean for our interpretation of the hymn? The parallelism of thought and thematic structure between the stanzas allows us to conclude that the basic connotation and usage of prwoto/toko$ is consistent. The established Christological tradition (#2) allows us to work backward:

    • Verse 18: In accordance with early tradition, the term prwto/toko$ refers to Jesus as the first person to be raised from the dead (in the sense of the final/eschatological resurrection) and given new (eternal) life. In Jewish and early Christian tradition, the resurrection was the primary event marking the beginning of the New Age, which could be understood as a “new creation”; often this entails the idea of genuine re-creation of the universe (‘heaven and earth’, cf. Isa 65:17; 66:22; Rev 21:1; 2 Pet 3:13). As the first resurrected being, Jesus can be considered the “first”, the beginning, of the new creation (Paul expresses this line of thought clearly enough in Rom 8:11ff, 18-25ff).
    • Verse 15: Just as Jesus in his resurrection represents the beginning of the new creation, so also did he, in his pre-existence, represent the beginning of the first creation. In saying that he was the “(one) first brought forth” (prwto/toko$), the implication is that he was the first being (person) to be given life and existence.

It is at just this point that the hymn is in tension with orthodox Christology, at least in its developed, post-Nicene form. And, indeed, the use of prwto/toko$ in v. 15 can easily be read in an Arian sense. We may summarize the Arian view simply as follows: the Son was a divine/heavenly being, existing prior to the creation of the universe, but was himself a being created by God. Nicene orthodoxy was shaped as a direct response to this Christology, and was enshrined in the Creed by the phrase gennhqe/nta ou) poihqe/nta (“having come to be [born], not having been made“). In order to preserve a proper sense of the adjective prwto/toko$ in Col 1:15, it was necessary for post-Nicene Christology to adopt (and affirm) the concept of ‘eternal generation’ —i.e., that Jesus was “brought forth” (born) eternally by God the Father. In this regard, the Arian view was condemned in no uncertain terms by the Nicene anathemas: “those who say ‘there was a time when he was not’… they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church”.

Such Christological disputes, while important in their own right, are far removed from our hymn here in Colossians. Indeed, the established orthodox Christology notwithstanding, the original sense of verse 15 would seem to be rather closer to the Arian view than the Nicene, especially if, as seems likely, the hymn was influenced by Hellenistic Jewish Wisdom-tradition and Logos-theology (discussed in the prior notes). Keep in mind that in the seminal passage of Prov 8:22ff Wisdom, while pre-existent (and divine), is still created by God (vb hn`q*); in the LXX, the verb kti/zw is used, the same verb used in vv. 15-16 of the hymn (incl. the derived noun kti/si$), and is also referred to as the a)rxh/ (“beginning”) of God’s creation (cf. verse 18 here).

However, we need not conclude from this that the Arian view is per se correct, nor claim it as the proper interpretation of Col 1:15-16. For the moment, it is sufficient to accept the principle that, as of c. 60 A.D., the early Christology had not yet developed to the point it had by 300-320 A.D., when the Arian controversy took root. In the intervening years, early Christians were forced to grapple intensely with the implications—logical and doctrinal—of Jesus’ pre-existence and exalted/divine position as the Son of God. When the Colossians Christ-hymn was composed, such theological questions were only just beginning to be addressed. The use of prwto/toko$ in the hymn reflects first century, not fourth century, Christology.

Let us now return to verse 18, and consider the adjective prwto/toko$ in light of the verbal adjective prwteu/wn in 18c. The line represents a i%na-clause, which gives the reason, or purpose, why Jesus was made the prwto/toko$ out of the dead (i.e., was the first one raised from the dead) by God. It was so that (i%na)—

he should come to be [ge/nhtai] (the one) being first [prwteu/wn] in all (thing)s”

The verb gi/nomai, the common Greek verb of becoming, often connotes the idea of birth—i.e., coming to be born, though the related verb genna/w expresses this more precisely (cf. above on the phrase from the Creed). The subjunctive form reinforces the idea that this is something God wishes to be, that it expresses His will and purpose. The emphatic pronoun au)to/$ (“he”, cf. verse 17) makes clear that this applies to Jesus.

It is the verbal adjective (participle) prwteu/wn (“being [the] first”) that is most relevant to the idea of Jesus as prwto/toko$; the terms are clearly used in a parallel sense, both as substantive adjectives describing who Jesus (the Son) is. Interestingly, the verb prwteu/w (“be first”) occurs only here in the New Testament, and thus certainly cannot be considered a distinctive Pauline term; it is also rare in the LXX, occurring just three times (Esth 5:11; 2 Macc 6:18; 13:15). However, the idea of Jesus being first is present and expressed several different ways in the New Testament. Perhaps the most notable instance is the famous statement, drawing upon early Gospel (Baptist) tradition, in the Johannine Prologue (1:15, also v. 30):

“the (one) coming behind me has come to be in front of me, (in) that he was (the) first of [i.e. for, before] me”

The thought and theology of this statement, phrased fully in Johannine theological terms, is difficult and complex; I have discussed it in some detail in earlier notes and articles. What is most important to note is how each descriptive term, indicating relative position— “behind” (o)pi/sw), “in front” (e&mprosqen), “first” (prw=to$)—is tied to a key verbal form:

    • e)rxo/meno$, present (participle) of e&rxomai (come)
    • ge/gonen, perfect of the verb of becoming (gi/nomai)
    • h@n, aorist of the verb of being (ei)mi)

Each of these has special theological significance in the Gospel of John, especially in the context of the Prologue. The verb e&rxomai refers to the human life and ministry of Jesus, and is thus in the present tense. The verb gi/nomai is specifically used for things in creation coming-to-be, and especially of a human being born (i.e. the birth of Jesus as a human being, the incarnation). Finally, the verb of being (ei)mi) is exclusively used of God (Deity) in the Prologue, especially the aorist indicative (h@n, “was”) in vv. 1-2.

Thus, in John 1:15, Jesus’ position as “first” (prw=to$) relates specifically to his exalted (pre-existent) place alongside God the Father. As the pre-existent Logos, who plays a central role in the creation of the universe (v. 3), Jesus (the Son) functions as the divine Wisdom of Prov 8:22ff. As previously noted, the Colossians hymn almost certainly draws upon this same line of Wisdom/Logos tradition, having a number of points in common with the Christology of the Johannine Prologue. The main difference is that, in the hymn, the idea of Jesus as the “first” is filtered through the traditional emphasis on the resurrection. Jesus comes to be first, and is the first-born of the new creation, through the resurrection. Being raised by the Father, Jesus is exalted to a position similar to that which he (the Son) held in the beginning, prior to the original creation of the universe. Much the same conceptual framework occurs in the Philippians hymn as well (cf. the earlier notes on Phil 2:6-11).

The expression e)n pa=sin (“in all [thing]s”) emphasizes again the relationship of the exalted Jesus to all things in creation, repeating the use of the adjective pa=$ from vv. 15-17. Only here, the focus is on the new creation. This new creation begins with the resurrection of Jesus, to be followed by the resurrection of believers at the end of the current Age. Eventually all of creation (“all things”) will be transformed, according to the pattern of the “first-born”, the “first-fruits” —that is, the resurrection of Christ and those who are united with him (believers). Paul may well have in mind here his eschatological discussion in Romans 8. The preposition e)n (“in”) sometimes denotes “among”, and the expression e)n pa=sin can mean “among all (thing)s” or “among all (person)s”, prompting one to think of Paul’s words in Rom 8:29: “unto [i.e. for the purpose of] his [i.e. Jesus’] (com)ing to be (the) first (one) brought forth [prwto/toko$] among [e)n] many brothers”.


November 11: Colossians 1:18b

Second Stanza: Col 1:18b-20

Following the intervening couplets of vv. 17-18a, the second stanza of the hymn begins with v. 18b. Conceptually, and in terms of its thematic structure, the second stanza is parallel with the first; however, it differs significantly with regard to its formal poetic structure and the rhythm of the lines. If Paul adapted an early Christian hymn already in existence, it is possible that the ‘original’ composition may have been exhibited greater consistency, formally and poetically, between its stanzas.

As previously noted, vv. 17-18a are transitional, and the second couplet (v. 18a, discussed in the previous note) prepares the way for the second stanza, focusing on Jesus’ role in the new creation, as represented by believers in Christ (i.e., the e)kklhsi/a).

Colossians 1:18b

o%$ e)stin a)rxh/
prwto/toko$ e)k tw=n nekrw=n
“who is (the) beginning,
(the one) first brought forth out of the dead”

The second stanza begins just as the first stanza did, with a relative pronoun (o%$) followed by the verb of being (e)stin, 3rd person present active indicative). Each stanza thus consists of a complex relative clause, which relates back to “the Son” (“His beloved Son”) in v. 13—i.e., “(the) Son…who is…”. The principal declaration of the first stanza was that the Son “is (the) image of God the unseeable (One)” (v. 15a), further explained by the expressive phrase “(the one) first brought forth [prwto/toko$] of every (thing) founded (by God)”. The opening of the second stanza picks up on this phrase, using the same adjective prwto/toko$ (on the meaning of this term, cf. below, and the prior note on v. 15b).

Let us consider the parallelism of the two stanzas in their opening lines:

    • Stanza 1:
      • “who is (the) image of God…
        • (the one) first brought forth [prwto/toko$] of every (thing) founded (by God)”
    • Stanza 2:
      • “who is (the) beginning
        • (the one) first brought forth [prwto/toko$] out of the dead”

Thus the term a)rxh/ (“beginning”) is parallel with e)i)kw\n tou= qeou= (“the image of God”), and so should help us understand its precise meaning in context here. While the noun a)rxh/ is often used in a temporal sense, and, as such, would certainly be appropriate in reference to the beginning of Creation (cf. LXX Gen 1:1; John 1:1ff, etc), it can also be used in a positional-relational sense, such as for a person who holds a leading/ruling position (i.e., the chief person, the one at the top). The use of the “head” motif in v. 18a (cf. the previous note) suggests that the positional-relational, rather than the temporal, aspect is primarily in view here. This also accords with the idea of Jesus (the Son) as the “image of God” in the first stanza, that expression being qualified by the adjective “unseeable”, emphasizing the greatness and glory of Jesus, rather than his temporal priority. Further confirmation for this use of a)rxh/ is found from the occurrence of the plural a)rxai/ in v. 16, referring to those beings (human and heavenly) who exercise positions of rule in the cosmos (i.e., “chief [ruler]s”). The term usually translated as “first fruits” (cf. the discussion below), a)parxh/, literally signifies “(the) beginning [a)rxh/] of (the harvesting) from (the ground)”.

There can be no doubt that the beginnings of creation are also being referenced here, especially with the adjective prwto/toko$, meaning “(the) first (thing or person) brought forth” —in the case of living beings (human or animal), it essentially means “first-born” (cf. again the discussion on v. 15b). The use of this adjective in the hymn is complicated, and potentially controversial, in its implications. There are four aspects which need to be considered carefully:

    1. The fundamental meaning of the adjective
    2. The immediate context of the expression “first-born out of the dead”
    3. The parallel usage in the first stanza (v. 15)
    4. The related use of the verbal adjective prwteu/wn (“being first”) in v. 18c

Let us begin with the first two aspects (#1 and 2). I have already discussed the fundamental meaning of prwto/toko$, which can be defined simply as “the first [prw=to$] thing (or person) brought forth [to/ko$]”, often in the sense of produce coming forth out of the ground (‘first-fruits’) or a child coming out of the mother’s womb (‘first-born’). While the adjective does not always refer strictly to temporal priority, the temporal aspect is central to the theme of the “firstborn” in Old Testament tradition (Exodus 13:2, 12, etc). Moreover, even in terms of rank and position, the heir or chosen one was typically the eldest (i.e. firstborn) son. There is thus no reason or justification for obscuring or glossing over this basic meaning of prwto/toko$ (cf. Luke 2:7; Heb 11:28), as it is used here in the hymn.

If we wish to isolate the earliest Christological use of the adjective, applying it to the person of Jesus, we need look no further than the expression that occurs here in v. 18b: prwto/toko$ e)k tw=n nekrw=n, “(the one) first brought forth out of the dead”, i.e., “first-born of of the dead”. The same essential expression occurs in Revelation 1:5, and Paul uses prwto/toko$ in much the same context (the resurrection) in Romans 8:29. This strongly suggests that we are dealing with a relatively common early Christian idiom, identifying Jesus, quite literally, as the first person to be raised from the dead (cf. Acts 26:23). The future resurrection of believers will follow the same pattern as Jesus’ own resurrection, and can thus be described using similar terminology (cf. Rom 8:11, 29, and cp. 2 Thess 2:13; James 1:18; Heb 12:23; Rev 14:4). There are several reasons why the adjective prwto/toko$ would come to be used in this context of resurrection from the dead:

    • The natural image of resurrection as a “new birth”, with the obvious parallel between the ‘womb of the earth’ and the mother’s womb
    • Similarly, this draws upon the idea of the harvest, and thus the specific concept of the ‘first-fruits’ (cp. 1 Cor 15:20ff); the harvest was a common eschatological motif, with the end of the growing-cycle serving as a symbol for the end of the Age (cf. Matt 3:12 par; Mk 4:29; Matt 13:39ff, 49; Rev 14:14-20, etc)
    • In such an eschatological context, the resurrection was tied to the new creation that would mark the New Age, and ‘new creation’ is close conceptually to a ‘new birth.’

It would seem all but certain that any further Christological development or application of the term prwto/toko$ was based on this early usage—that is, in the context of Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation. This will be discussed further, along with the other two aspects of the adjective, mentioned above (#3 and 4), in the next daily note.


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.

November 9: Colossians 1:17

Transition: Col 1:17-18a

The two couplets of vv. 17-18a sit between the two stanzas of the hymn, and should be treated as a distinct unit. This unit also represents, arguably, the most distinctively Pauline portion of the Christ-hymn. If, as many commentators believe, Paul adapted an existing hymn, it seems likely that these couplets were included as his own addition to the composition. The lines are certainly transitional, with the first couplet (v. 17) continuing the thematic focus of the first stanza (the first creation), and the second (v. 18a) anticipating that of the second stanza (the new creation).

Colossians 1:17

kai\ au)to/$ e)stin pro\ pa/ntwn
kai\ ta\ pa/nta e)n au)tw=| sune/sthken
“and he is before all (thing)s,
and all (thing)s have stood together in him”

The initial conjunction kai/ of the first line marks the transitional character of these couplets, as noted above. The pronoun au)to/$ (“he”) is emphatic, and relates to the relative pronoun (o%$) that begins each stanza of the hymn. Indeed the phrase au)to/$ e)stin (“he is”) is precisely parallel to the opening of each stanza (o%$ e)stin, “who is”). It thus continues the Christological focus of the hymn, as a declaration of who Jesus (the Son) is.

The adjective pa=$ (“all”), as a substantive (collective) plural (i.e., “all [the] things”), was used earlier in v. 16 (cf. also the adjective in v. 15b). It also happens to represent an important part of the Pauline vocabulary, as he frequently uses the substantive adjective in a comprehensive, collective sense, though less commonly in a cosmological context, as here (see esp. 1 Cor 15:24-28). The reference here is to all things (everything) in the universe, with particular emphasis on all intelligent living beings (human beings, etc). The adjective is used in both lines of the couplet, giving double emphasis to the idea of Jesus’ place in relation to all of creation.

This relationship is indicated by two prepositional phrases: “he is before [pro/]” in the first line, and “(is) in him [e)n au)tw=|]” in the second. There is a semantic ambiguity with the first preposition, pro/, “before”, which can be understood in either a temporal or positional-relational sense. A temporal meaning is certainly possible, especially given the repeated use of pro/ in the LXX of Prov 8:22ff, which shares the theme of the pre-existence of divine Wisdom and its role in creation. However, it is worth noting that the preposition does not occur in any of the prominent pre-existence passages of the New Testament (such as the Johannine Prologue; cp. the comparable use of pri/n in Jn 8:58). In 1 Cor 2:7, Paul uses the preposition in a temporal sense, and in a context similar to that of the hymn (cf. also Eph 1:4).

The parallelism with the second couplet strongly suggests that a positional-relational meaning of pro/ is in view, given the parallel with the idea of Jesus as the “head” (kefalh/). That is to say, Jesus holds the chief place, the ruling and governing position, over all creation, and is thus “before” all things in that sense. In point of fact, the hymn emphasizes both the temporal and positional-relational aspects—that is, the pre-existence of Jesus the Son (with his role in creation) and his ruling position over the cosmos.

The verb in the second line is suni/sthmi, “stand together, (trans.) set together”. It is a distinctly Pauline term, as 14 of the 16 occurrences in the New Testament are in Paul’s letters (2 Corinthians, Romans, Galatians, and here in Colossians). Paul tends to use the verb in a general, transitive sense— “set/place together”, i.e., “establish, confirm” (Rom 3:5; 5:8; Gal 2:18); the specialized sense in 2 Corinthians, involving the question of ministers bearing letters of confirmation or recommendation (3:1; 4:2, et al), follows the technical use of the verb in Rom 16:1. Here in the hymn is the only Pauline use of the verb in a cosmological-philosophical sense, akin to the way Philo of Alexandria, for example, uses it (Who Is the Heir of the Divine Things §58), in reference to the Logos (lo/go$) as the governing power of God by which all things in the universe are “held together” (sune/sthke). The Logos is similarly described as a “bond”, the binding force, that holds the cosmos together (Who Is the Heir §23, cf. On Flight and Finding §112, Barth/Blanke, pp. 204-5).

As previously noted, this Logos-theology was influenced by Hellenistic Jewish Wisdom-tradition, associating Wisdom with the creation and existence/sustenance of the world, that stretches back to the famous passage in Prov 8:22-31. In Wisdom 1:7, the Wisdom of God is said to be that which holds all things together (sune/xon ta\ pa/nta); while in Sirach 43:26, it is stated that all things lay (bound) together (su/geitai ta\ pa/nta) in the Word (Lo/go$) of God. The Sirach passage is actually quite close to Col 1:17 with the phrase e)n lo/gw| (“in the Logos”), comparable to e)n au)tw=| (“in him”, i.e. in Christ). The wording in 2 Peter 3:5 is even closer, when it speaks of the heavens and earth “having stood together [sunestw=sa] in the Word of God [e)n tw=| tou= qeou= lo/gw|]”. There can be no doubt that similar concepts and phraseology underlie the wording of v. 17 in the hymn as well.

While the expression “in him” (e)n au)tw=|) may refer primarily to the creation and existence of the cosmos, it carries a deeper meaning as used by Paul, given the importance of the expression “in Christ” (e)n Xristw=|, with variations) in his letters, where it occurs dozens of times. The principal concept is of believers being united—with God and with one another—in the person of Jesus Christ. This occurs both symbolically (through the baptism ritual, etc) and essentially, through the presence of the Spirit. Paul may well have expected his readers to make the association, and the transition, readily from the cosmos being bound together in Christ to the idea of believers being bound together in him. In any case, this is precisely the transition that occurs in the hymn, beginning with the second intervening couplet (v. 18a). We will examine this second couplet in our next daily note.

References above marked “Barth/Blanke” are to Markus Barth and Helmut Blanke, Colossians, transl. by Astrid B. Beck, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 34B (1994).