This is one of the most debated passages in the history of New Testament interpretation and requires more care than any in Colossians. In part the modern debate is over the meaning of its poetic language, which is understood against the backdrop of ancient literature and religion. Another aspect of the debate, however, is over its theological significance and especially the role this passage plays within the whole of Colossians. Let me offer a few introductory comments regarding Paul's pivotal confession of Christ before I comment more specifically on its meaning.
In this passage Paul employs various images of creation to clarify "the word of truth, the gospel" (1:5-6). By linking the lordship of Christ to God's creation of the entire cosmos, Paul's tacit claim is that Christians have been remade into a new humanity, characterized by their holistic spirituality. Against his ascetic opponents at Colosse, who have rejected the material for the spiritual, Paul confesses Christ as Lord over both worlds; he is the "cosmic Christ." Therefore, believers are to resist any teaching that divides their life into separate spheres, material and spiritual, which would also divide their loyalty to Christ. If Christ is Lord over all of God's creation, then those in Christ have been re-formed into a new creation and embody God's reconciliation of all things (v. 20).
By using the creation typology to underscore the holistic result of God's saving grace, Paul can also introduce the importance of Jesus' death (v. 20). The Creator's ultimate goal for the fallen creation is the reconciliation or restoration of all things; and this goal has already been achieved on the cross. Though the material effects of sin and fallenness remain all too evident, Paul can claim that the Creator's goal has already been realized through Christ and is already being demonstrated in the life of a new creation, the church.
Paul's point challenges today's church to change. More and more believers divide more and more things up. What we value in the privacy of our homes is often at odds with what we value in our public lives. At work, we often reflect the commercial values of survival and self-interest rather than the biblical values of self-sacrifice and fidelity. Modernity's dream of economic affluence and political influence often determines even the believer's behavior outside of home and congregation.
I recently spoke on "Human Sexuality and the Christian" at a singles' convention. My discussion of the Bible's teaching about homosexuality provoked many in the audience to make the modern distinction between sexual orientation and sexual practice, as though God's grace affected one's sexual practices (external) but not one's sexual orientation (internal). Paul's point is that such dichotomies between the visible and invisible, public and private, external and internal are false. His confession of Christ's lordship over all things shows his confidence that Christ's death establishes God's grace in every nook and cranny of God's creation.
This point is further clarified by a literary analysis of the passage. Commentators continue to debate its literary history, trying to identify its form and trace its function in the earliest church to its final form in this composition. Suffice it to say that no clear consensus has emerged on any of these issues. Most argue, however, that the poetic quality of this passage and its non-Pauline vocabulary suggest that Paul did not compose it from scratch; rather, he edited a hymn or confession that was already in use, probably by the Colossian readers (see introduction, under "The Author of Colossians"). Scholars arrive at this conclusion by carefully distinguishing the poetic images used to guide a congregation in prayer, to confess its faith in Christ or to sing its devotion to Christ from the more didactic descriptions of Christ used to instruct a congregation. The phrases used in this passage to express Christ's lordship are actually poetic metaphors and do not intend a literal description. These metaphors seek to point us to the truth about Christ's significance for human and salvation history.
Clearly, the poetic quality of this passage makes it more difficult for the modern interpreter to discern Paul's intended meaning for his first readers, although many scholars have attempted to so do. In its canonical form, its rhythmic pattern remains uneven and its stanza markers unclear (unlike what we expect in today's hymnals). Many agree with me, however, that two roughly parallel stanzas about Christ are introduced by a common grammatical construction. Thus, in verses 15 and 18 Christ is introduced by a relative pronoun (hos, "he") combined with the linking verb (estin, "is"), resulting in a crucial parallelism that sets forth Paul's essential convictions about the lordship of Jesus Christ: (1) he is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation (v. 15) and (2) he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead (v. 18).
This grammatical clue is crucial for interpretation, not only because it provides a nice balance to the passage but, more important, because it divides the passage into two integral christological themes that Paul will develop in the main body of his letter. The first theme, introduced in verses 15-17, considers the role of Christ within the created order, while the second, introduced in verses 18-20, considers his role within the new order of his kingdom now populated by God's people (compare v. 13). Paul's parallel claims about the Lord Christ nicely frame the Bible's conviction that God's creation and redemption are two parts of an integral whole. This theological conviction implies a practical point as well: the redeemed community is a new creation, and the current demonstration that God's grace has reconciled and reintegrated all things spiritual with all things material in accord with God's will.
The similarity of terminology with Jewish interpretation of Wisdom's work in both creation (Prov 8) and salvation (Is 40) provides yet another important clue to the teacher of this passage. Many religious Jews of the first century, such as Paul, ordered their lives by biblical Wisdom, not only because it provided practical advice for a wide assortment of daily affairs but indeed because this advice was viewed as the very "word of God" (Prov 30:5-9), necessary for salvation (Wisdom 6:24). Various New Testament writers make this same point. James, for example, views Wisdom as the heavenly "word" from God, necessary for salvation (Jas 1:17-21; compare 2 Tim 3:15). Matthew's gospel shows how Jesus taught his disciples the Wisdom of God for their salvation (Mt 7:24; 10:24; 11:25; 24:45; 25:1-9). Paul makes it clear that he follows in the way of the earliest church, then, by drawing upon Jewish Wisdom to explain his faith in Christ (compare 1 Cor 1:30).
Two core convictions of biblical Wisdom are important as background to Paul's understanding of Christ's cosmic lordship. First, Wisdom teaches that every aspect of human life (including its religious, social, political, family and economic dimensions) is to make visible the Creator's invisible intentions (see Heb 11:1-2). If God is true and good, so are the intentions for all that the Creator has made. So Israel's sages distilled their observations of human life into the Old Testament Proverbs to express the Creator's good intentions as guides toward the good life and away from misfortune.
Second, the messianic Jews (Jews waiting for Messiah to come) who lived around the time of Jesus and Paul linked Israel's practice of biblical Wisdom to the coming of the Messiah. What had first been composed as a social ethic to order Israel's national life now took on eschatological importance: the practice of Wisdom became a condition for Israel's entrance into God's promised salvation.
Taken together, then, these two convictions derived from the Wisdom tradition of Judaism inform Paul's convictions about Christ, who is the personification of Wisdom, and the church, which belongs to him: God's good intentions for all of creation are embodied in the Lord and are realized in the community of his kingdom.
Let me make one final comment in introducing this passage. Paul's confession of the lordship of Christ provides one of the New Testament's most important models for understanding the deity of Christ. In a day when many believers hold firmly to the incarnation of God in Christ but do not understand why, this passage takes on an even greater practical importance. For the apostle's confession that Jesus is cosmic Lord makes the even more profound claim that in the Lord Jesus Christ, God has been made one of us, for us. Certainly Paul's primary point in this compositional context is to claim something decisive for the Lord's messiahship: that is, Jesus' messianic work, especially his death (v. 20), embodies or incarnates the work of God. In fact, the truth about God's grace (vv. 4-5) is disclosed personally and within history by Jesus from Nazareth.
On this basis Paul revises the fundamentals of Jewish monotheism as well as his interpretation of Jewish Scripture; for him, true religion is no longer expressed by Judaism's daily recitation of the biblical Shema (Dt 6:4, an affirmation of faith in Israel's God) or compliance with biblical Wisdom's instruction through observance of Torah legislation or temple practice. Rather, all of God's truth contained in Jewish tradition has been made flesh in Jesus; further, the Creator's good intentions for all things, incarnated in Jesus, are embodied in the new creation, which is by and for and in him (1:16-17).
Christian orthodoxy does not conclude with incarnational Christology but with incarnational ecclesiology. The God whose grace and truth is made flesh in Christ's life is now incarnated in the church's life. Thus Paul's claim for the Lord Christ issues in a practical claim upon the Christian's life and constitutes yet another typology of God's grace: sinful humanity is transformed into new humanity with the capacity to live in accord with God's pleasures and to delight in the blessings God intended for the first man and woman. For this reason, Paul's defense of Christian faith in chapter 2 will give way to his description of Christian life in chapter 3.
The first stanza of this confession relates Christ to creation, beginning with the claim that Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Most scholars locate the important idiom image within the Hellenistic world, where it referred to various media of divine revelation. For example, according to Platonic thought, the entire cosmos is the visible "image" of the invisible God (see Lohse 1971:47) and the natural order properly guides our imagination about God's identity. In fact, under the influence of Plato, Hellenistic Judaism interpreted God's act of creation as informed by preexistent and eternal images or expressions of God's Wisdom. In this mythic sense, then, creation is the visible, historical counterpart of invisible, heavenly reality. The precepts and principles of God's Wisdom form the very substance of all things. These "images" of the Creator do not merely "represent" or help us "visualize" God; rather, they actually make what is hidden in God concrete and knowable, so that we may know and enter into fellowship with God.
Paul's understanding of Christ's significance takes shape in a Greek philosophical environment that defined image in this way. In referring to Jesus as the image of the invisible God, Paul means that Jesus is the very substance of God's purposes and intentions for creation. He is God's pattern for all of life, and through him God will restore a broken and fallen creation in his likeness. In this regard, Paul's claim for Jesus may be intended as more than an apologia for his cosmic importance as Lord Christ. I think Paul uses image to echo the biblical story of creation, when God created male and female in God's own image (Gen 1:27). Paul's ultimate point is that the Christ event brings to historical expression the ultimate purpose of God's creation of all human life. On the one hand, Jesus exemplifies humanity's faithful response to God; but on the other hand, he also discloses God's faithfulness to humankind. God's good intent in creating human life is to enjoy a faithful relationship with every person. Because of Christ, this intent can now be realized for those who are in him.
The next claim for Christ, that he is the firstborn over all creation, is surely one of the most difficult in the New Testament. Of course Paul's claim about Christ's "birth" is not to be taken literally, as Arius did in the early fourth century or as the Jehovah's Witnesses do today. In their antitrinitarian polemic, Arians argued that Jesus was merely the first human being ever "fathered" by God--in a literal sense, the first of a new creation. If they were right, the Lord Jesus would not be God's substantive equal and there could be no Trinity.
Such heresy stems in part from a failure to appreciate the Old Testament background of Paul's expression. Scripture refers to Israel as God's firstborn child (Ex 4:22; compare Jer 31:9; Is 64:8) and so expresses God's election of Israel for salvation and defines its special place in God's redemptive plans. Especially in the Exodus text, the phrase expresses the Lord's faithfulness to Israel, a faithfulness that ultimately ensures its salvation from the evil pharaoh. In Paul's handling of this biblical tradition, Christ and not Israel is cast as God's Son (1:13). God's faithfulness to Christ ensures his resurrection and triumph over death, and in him over all those evil powers that keep a fallen creation captive to spiritual darkness and the consequences of human sins (1:13-14).
It is possible that another ingredient of the background to Paul's use of firstborn is the ancient idea of a birthright, which gave the firstborn a privileged status and responsibility within the family (Lightfoot 1879:144-45). Again, if we push this connection too far we risk losing a fully trinitarian theology, for even the firstborn son is not the equal of his father within the household. If Paul had in mind the birthright, it would be only as a metaphor for Jesus' unique and distinctive role within the creation as agent of its salvation. Paul's idiom is better understood through Jewish Wisdom, which he believes is best personified by Jesus (see above). Even as God "created" Wisdom in the beginning (Prov 8:22) by which to create all things (Prov 3:19), so now Jesus is properly understood as God's true template by whom the divine purposes for all things are perfectly revealed.
The next christological formulation (v. 16) only expands and clarifies the cosmic result of God's triumph over evil through the Son. Creation itself contains all things . . . visible and invisible. In fact, Paul shares the view of his contemporaries that the cosmic order includes a spiritual realm of invisible . . . thrones or powers or rulers or authorities and a parallel but physical realm of visible . . . thrones or powers or rulers or authorities. According to Paul's teaching these two realms are fully integrated, so that a spiritual reality lies behind the societal, whether for good (the Spirit of the Risen Christ empowering the church to worship and bear witness to God) or evil (the evil one empowering the enemies of Christ to undermine the church's worship of and witness to God). As a matter of Paul's incontrovertible "theo-logic," all these spiritual powers and their various historical agents have their final destiny in negative or positive relationship to the One in whom all things were created.
The NIV incorrectly translates Paul's "in him" (that is, Christ) formula as by him, missing the intended force of the phrase. Paul typically uses "in him" or "in Christ" as a metaphor for restored relationships or, even more specifically, the spiritual home of those who belong to Christ, where he (rather than the evil one) rules over them (v. 13). In this particular confession, however, Paul presumes that the destiny of the entire created order--both its spiritual and its physical realms--is linked to Christ's destiny. Further, God's positive verdict on Jesus' messianic work, indicated by the raising of him as Lord Christ, shows that God's purpose for creation will ultimately be carried out (Rev 21:1--22:5).
Christ embodies God's will for all creation; Christ is the content and goal of God's grace, by which God's will is now being brought to reality within history. When the ruling elites of society resist the teaching of Christ, they actually prevent the "good life" from being realized. In whatever form it finally takes, rebellion against God is self-destructive simply because it is at odds with the life-generating resources that God has built into creation. Any secular pretension or humanistic hubris will eventually be exposed as self-deceptive and false, utterly incapable of empowering a person for good. (Hence the recent collapse of Soviet communism.) Claims for national sovereignty or for individual rights, if not subjected to Christ's absolute claim on all things and every power, are without any foundation and are surely idolatrous.
Believers must never confuse the secular with the sacred. It is easy to fall into this confusion in the West, especially in America, where public rhetoric often employs a sacred idiom to maintain public conduct that is often secular. The point Paul makes here has less to do with Christ's exalted status than with the consequences of his messianic work, which brought a fallen creation back under the Creator's sovereign reign. To deny Christ as the Lord of God's creation is to deny the redemptive consequences of Christ's death; to reject God's desire to delight in the inherent goodness of creation is to reject the prospect of a new creation of redeemed humanity in Christ.
The next set of christological formulations (v. 17) repeats in chronological fashion the critical relationship between Lord Christ and all things. The previous confession stated that the destiny of all things is predicated by being in Christ. Similarly, if Christ was before all things, and if all things have their beginning by him and their purpose for him, and if in him all things hold together in a coherent and logical way, then the wise thing to do is to line up under the lordship of Christ in order to enter into God's salvation. As Wright nicely puts it, "No creature is autonomous. All are God's servants (Ps 119:91) and dependents (Ps. 104)" (Wright 1987:73).
The final item of the confession's first stanza (v. 18) is clearly transitional from God's first creation to God's new creation, the church. This too alludes to the Old Testament narrative, where the genesis of creation (Gen 1--11) is linked to the genesis of Israel (Gen 12--50). In the biblical narrative these two stories are found together in the book of Genesis, because the story of the one cannot be told without the story of the other: the election of God's people will result in the restoration of God's creation. Likewise, the careful structure of the confession, which locates the initial claim about the church within a stanza about creation, prevents us from assuming that the destiny of the one is somehow distinct from the destiny of the other: both church and creation are "in Christ," and the destiny of each is inextricably bound together because of and for him.
Paul often uses the head-body metaphor when referring to the relationship between Christ and the church (O'Brien 1983:57-61). Sometimes Paul uses the body metaphor to express the interdependent relationships among gifted believers within the church (1 Cor 12:10-26). In this context, however, the emphasis is on Christ more than the church: Christ is Lord of the church even as the human head governs the body. Certainly this image of the human body leaves the impression of organic unity between Christ and the church: each is necessary to the other, since a headless body is as useless as a bodiless head (compare Eph 4:15-16).
Perhaps the relationship Paul has in mind stems from his participatory Christology: as members of Christ's body, believers participate by grace through faith in the history of the historical Jesus, from his death to his exaltation. Those who belong to the faith are liberated from the consequences of their sins through participating in Christ's death, and now experience a transformed life through participating in his resurrection.
The critical point to make, however, is that our participation with Christ in the salvation of God takes place in real time. If all things are fashioned with Christ in mind and for his glory (v. 16), and if the church and Christ are inseparable as body and head, then in some extra special sense the redeemed community embodies in real time all that God desires for creaturely existence. Paul resists any theological jargon that might allow believers to speak of their participation in Christ's body without reference to their actual experiences. Christianity is a practical religion, made up of believers who live in and for the restoration of a broken and fragmented world. Our testimony to Christ's lordship is a mended life, made whole again by God's healing grace.
The second stanza of Paul's christological confession begins with a different point: Christ is the beginning. The word beginning comes from the same word-family as rulers (1:16) and probably carries the same idea: the Lord Christ is at "the beginning of"--or "rules over"--God's new creation, the church, even as he is Lord now over the various elites of God's created order. At times the word carries a temporal meaning, referring to the beginning or first event of a sequence of events. So this claim for Christ's lordship over the church may have a historical aspect: Jesus' death and resurrection begins his cosmic lordship (compare Phil 2:9-11) and inaugurates the new age of salvation's history in him (1 Cor 15:12-28). Paul further expands the confession here by adding the appositional phrase the firstborn from among the dead. The new age initiated by Christ's death and resurrection constitutes nothing less than a new order of human life in Christ, the essential ingredient of which is victory over death in its various expressions.
Significantly, Paul recycles the word firstborn (prototokos), which he used earlier to stake out Christ's status as Lord over all creation (v. 15). This word, found in both stanzas, stakes a common claim in two different spheres, creation and church. The histories of God's salvation and God's creation are joined together under the lordship of Christ. God's triumph over spiritual darkness and human sins through Christ results in the restoration of a fallen creation and of sinful creatures, who now share a common Lord. This truth, made real in our common experience of God's powerful grace, will be completely demonstrated at Christ's return.
Of course, this future has a past in the empty tomb of Jesus. Appropriately, then, the prepositional phrase modifying firstborn is from among the dead, a metaphor for Jesus' resurrection. Since the final phrases of this second section (v. 20) speak of Christ's death, the confession of Christ's lordship over the church's salvation is bracketed by his death and resurrection. According to Paul, these two events constitute the messianic claim that inaugurates the salvation of God's creation. Further, the new life that characterizes the new humanity populating the new creation during the new age of salvation's history is the result of Christ's resurrection (compare Rom 6:4). In that Christ's dying and rising are past events, the new creation has erupted in the midst of a fallen creation, and the promised blessings of the new age are now being realized within the history of the church. Since the church's life in Christ is never divorced from creation's life in Christ, the church comes to understand its changed existence within and for the restoration of the world order.
Paul's orientation toward society modifies somewhat the natural conflict over values and convictions between the redeemed community and the rest of the world order (compare Col 3:9-10): conflict gives way to evangelism. As God's new creation, the faith community forsakes the old order but does not live in isolation from it. Rather, believers are called to live in the cultural mainstream as a new humanity and to call into question the old structures of "this present evil age" by its life with Christ and its proclamation of him. The church's incarnation of God's truth in deed and word would have absolutely no effect on other people if believers separated themselves from the lost. Worries about secular contamination only diminish the power of divine grace, which not only transforms believers but also protects them from evil.
The purpose clause that follows, so that in everything he might have the supremacy, articulates another result of God's positive verdict of Jesus' messianic mission in the empty tomb. The word the NIV translates supremacy comes from the word family of "firsts" (such as firstborn in vv. 15, 18) and focuses the purpose of God's new creation: to rank Christ as most important among all things. The phrase completes the earlier thrust of Paul's thinking that all things were created in him, by him and for him (v. 16), so that the extent of Christ's importance includes all things of both old and new orders.
Paul's confession returns to the question of Christ's lordship, but now to clarify what results from his faithful messiahship (compare Rom 1:3), when he "became" Lord by obeying God rather than by appealing to his preexistence (v. 17). But this new emphasis raises a question: how can Christ already "be" and then "become" cosmic Lord? Wright suggests a solution to this paradox in the distinction that Paul makes more clearly in other confessions about Christ, such as the one found in Philippians 2:5-11. There, according to Wright, Paul makes the distinction between a person's natural "right" that is not yet exercised and one whose status is ultimately legitimated by historical fact (1986:75). In this sense, Jesus has always been Lord of all; but as Messiah, by his faithfulness to God his preexistent status was proved valid.
Perhaps a more direct solution, however, lies in the twofold structure of the confession itself. In claiming Christ's lordship over all things, Paul makes a chronological distinction between Christ's preexistent lordship over creation and his postexistent lordship over the new creation. Therefore, while the preexistent Son is the firstborn over all creation and is therefore Lord over all things created, his lordship over the church began only after he became firstborn from among the dead at his exaltation (see Rom 1:3). With this in mind, we return to the phrase before us, so that in everything he might have the supremacy, to understand that everything does not refer to the all things created as in verse 16, but to all those new things that God's empowering grace continues to re-create within the faith community, beginning with Christ's resurrection.
At the core of the second half of the confession, sandwiched between claims for Christ's resurrection (v. 18) and his death (v. 20), are the redemptive results for humankind that follow from God's positive verdict of Jesus' messiahship. A great deal of scholarly attention has focused upon the meaning of the phrase for God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him--a claim to which Paul returns in 2:9 in arguing against the "hollow and deceptive philosophy" of his Colossian opponents (2:8). Frankly, this is a very difficult phrase to understand, and virtually every part of it remains contested among interpreters. Yet I think at least two elements should be included in its interpretation. First, Paul's intent is not to defend Christ's preexistence, a point he has already made. Rather, Paul's immediate interest is to confess Christ's lordship over the church. Thus, God's pleasure over Christ's deity explains God's verdict to make him Lord over every aspect of the church's salvation (v. 18; compare Acts 2:29-36). Second, by positing the fullness of God in Christ, Paul explains why Christ is an effective Lord. That is, God's fullness resides in the exalted Christ so that through him all things are reconciled to God.
While these two meanings may help provide the christological focus of this phrase, they do not settle a wide range of other interpretive issues. For example, what does the word fullness mean? In what sense does God's fullness dwell in him (the exalted Lord Christ)? What is the significance of Christ's blood and the nature of the peace that it provides the new creation?
Most modern commentators discount any explanation of fullness that argues for something other than a circumlocution for God. Actually, verse 19 does not include God; the verse's subject is fullness--literally, "all the fullness was pleased to dwell in him." Clearly, however, God is the implied subject of pleased, since a personal God can experience pleasure and the metaphor fullness cannot, and only God has the authority to define the relationship between Christ and the covenant community (compare Rom 9:6-29). But is fullness a metaphor of God's nature, as some understand, or perhaps of God's redeeming activity, as others suggest? When Paul speaks of the "grace of God" or the "righteousness of God" in his other writings, he intends the more Hebraic meaning of God's saving action rather than the more Hellenistic meaning of God's saving character. That is, Paul resists reducing God's grace or righteousness to a theological idea; for him God's grace or righteousness refers to God's work within history that transforms people and alters their destiny. Thus in Romans Paul speaks of grace as salvation-creating power and then locates God's righteousness within history (Rom 1:16-17)--first on the cross (Rom 3:22) and then in the actual experiences of the faith community (Rom 5--8). My point is that in a similar way, "God's fullness" is another idiom for divine action. God acted fully in Christ, and nothing of or nothing from God is lacking in Christ's work for us. God's redemptive activity on earth is mediated and God's faithfulness manifested through the Messiah.
This is precisely what God's resurrection of Jesus indicates to Paul. Easter convinced him--initially in his christophany on the Damascus Road--that the cross was neither scandalous nor foolish (see 1 Cor 1:22-24). In fact, the promised restoration of God's covenant with God's people and then all of creation, whether things on earth or things in heaven, is finally possible only in him and through him (compare v. 16; see Wright 1986:76, n. 3).
The effective outworking of divine grace within history through Christ is further nuanced by the phrase dwell in him. Hidden in the LXX usage of the word translated "dwell" (katoikeo) is a theological, even religious meaning: it is God who "dwells" in the holy place (Jer 7:3,7; compare Mt 23:21; Acts 7:48). In the New Testament, however, "the fullness of God" has come to dwell in the holy person, Jesus, who is the true temple for God's people of the new dispensation (Jn 2:19-21). In his physical absence, the disciples of the risen Christ form a community in him and are currently the "fullness of God" (see Eph 1:22-23). Thus, the faith community is God's true temple; in its particular life and special history God takes up residence on earth.
Paul's identification of the church as the temple of God (see 1 Cor 3:16-17) is enhanced by the grammatical emphasis placed upon the in him formula, which the NIV has softened by transposing the formula from the beginning of verse 19 and combining it with dwell at the end. In my view, Paul's understanding of the covenantal relationship between Christ and the church is encompassed in the in him formula. Believers dwell in Christ; as a result, they are the real beneficiaries of grace, since Christ is the medium of God's redemptive activities within history.
Indeed, just as this passage confesses faith in the exalted Christ, so must the confessing community define itself as the new humanity that finds its truest, most satisfying life in him. The validity of secular idols is already called into question by the faithfulness of Jesus and his subsequent exaltation as Lord. By dwelling in Christ believers are reconciled with God and can participate in God's triumph. This corporate dimension of the in him formula is underscored by Paul's shift of focus from Christ to the believers and by his thematic shift from Christ's resurrection to his death. God's resurrection of Jesus simply validates his death as the fulfillment of God's promised reconciliation for all believers who now reside in Christ.
Two different metaphors are used to interpret the redemptive importance of Christ's death--blood and cross. In a sense, the conflict between Christianity and Judaism boils down to an interpretation of Christ's death. According to the teaching of Paul, God saves the faithful from the self-destructive consequences of sin through the death of Jesus, God's Messiah. Jesus' death makes it possible to belong to him and to participate with him in the outworking of God's salvation on earth. According to the teaching of Judaism, however, Messiah will not die. Rather, it is faithful (messianic) Israel that suffers and often dies the martyr's death. In light of Israel's experience of suffering, then, religious Jews who anticipate the coming of God's Messiah interpret Scripture as teaching that Messiah will save Israel from its suffering and ultimately from its (i.e., God's) enemies.
While Paul does not emphasize the redemptive value of Christ's physical suffering (as does 1 Peter, for instance), he does emphasize Christ's death, which is even more scandalous. For him, the result of Christ's death is God's salvation, for in his blood and broken body we find our atoning sacrifice for sin. Religious Jews saw Jesus as having suffered the expected end of a Roman anarchist, which simply confirmed their judgment that he was a false Christ and not God's Christ.
We must not gloss over Paul's claims for the redemptive significance of Christ's death. The centrality of the crucifixion for Paul was a radical and intensely controversial claim in his day, though we often take it for granted today. Both metaphors Paul employs in this confession are intended to show the importance of the historical Jesus' execution for humanity's reconciliation with God. Blood, then, alludes to the religious importance of his death: blood is life attained by death, and is the priesthood's central image of covenant renewal. The blood of animal sacrifice, shed on the holy days of the Jewish calendar in accord with Leviticus 1--16, was symbolic of eternal life, the promise of God's covenant with Israel. For Paul, Christ's shed blood carries the same significance: the church's covenant with God for eternal life is renewed in Christ's atoning death (see Heb 9--10).
The second metaphor, cross, is more political. Although in Galatians 3:10 Paul alludes to the scandal of hanging an offender from a "tree" (compare Dt 27:26), his reference to Christ's cross in his writings challenges the usual Jewish argument that the church's Lord was executed in shame on a pagan cross. For Paul, the irony of this public perception is that Jesus' Roman death only underscored his fidelity to God's purposes (see Rom 3:21-25). Rather than symbolizing his disloyalty to Judaism or to Rome, the cross symbolizes Jesus' loyalty to God. His essential messianic credential is his profound confidence that God will make good on the covenant promise first made to Abraham and Sarah (compare Rom 4). The cross becomes the public symbol of the Messiah's fidelity to God's redemptive promises and triggers, as a result, the disclosure of God's empowering grace within history (see Rom 3:21-22; Gal 2:16-21; 3:22).
The verb making peace (eirenopoieo) expands the meaning of the verb to reconcile (apokatallasso). The community's experience of enjoying "peace with God" (Rom 5:1-5) is the tangible mark of being reconciled with God. It is of further significance that Paul links the peacemaking effect of Christ's death to his blood. Of course, this couplet echoes the Old Testament priestly tradition and may foreshadow Paul's later polemic against those who would maintain God's reign on earth by a system of mystical beliefs and ascetic rituals. Paul will argue that God's reconciling grace in the current age is not mediated through formal religious observance but by faith in the faithful Jesus.
Finally, Paul's idiom is inclusive: all things are reconciled to God through Christ. In a passage that explores the importance of Christ in terms of God's creation, I am led to understand God's reconciliation of all things as encompassing the nonhuman and inanimate worlds, so that "even the stones will cry out" in praise of God (Lk 19:40; see also Rev 21:19-21). While I think it unwise to speculate how God might restore each part of the natural world or whether there are animals in heaven, I also think it unwise to limit God's reconciliation to the human order of creation, for that denies grace its unconditional and universal character.
Starting your free trial of Bible Gateway Plus is easy. You’re already logged in with your Bible Gateway account. The next step is to enter your payment information. Your credit card won’t be charged until the trial period is over. You can cancel anytime during the trial period.
Click the button below to continue.
You’ve already claimed your free trial of Bible Gateway Plus. To subscribe at our regular subscription rate of $3.99/month, click the button below.
It looks like you’re already subscribed to Bible Gateway Plus! To manage your subscription, visit your Bible Gateway account settings.
Want to get the most out of Bible Gateway? Find out why Bible Gateway Plus is the ultimate toolkit for anyone seeking to grow closer to the Word. For less than the cost of a latte, Plus membership gives you access to a complete digital Bible study library and reduced banner ads. Try it free for 30 days!
Three easy steps to start your free trial subscription to Bible Gateway Plus.