The opening phrase but now acknowledges the ultimate importance of Christ's death for reconciliation (as in v. 20). The particular formulation for Christ's death found in this verse is difficult to interpret because it is grammatically awkward. Two important words for the human body are used together: soma, which refers to the whole person in Jewish psychology, and sarx, often translated "flesh," which refers either to a particular person's anatomy or to a person's natural opposition to God's purposes. The NIV translation combines the two words to emphasize Christ's physical body; this is helpful for three reasons.
First, the emphasis underscores the historical and real nature of Jesus' death and therefore of God's reconciling grace. Second, while I doubt that the Colossian opponents are docetic (denying Christ's humanity and as a result his material solidarity with us), they may well tend toward the theological abstraction (Paul calls it "philosophy" in Col 2:8) that has led to moral asceticism and esoteric beliefs in Colosse. Paul always insists that at the core of the believer's understanding of God is a historical fact—a real person, an ugly execution of that innocent man, his bodily resurrection and ascension into heaven. Likewise, at the core of the gospel is another historical reality—a reconciling God, an atoning death, a new life. Real human sins are actually forgiven and real human lives are actually transformed. In fact, God's reconciling grace is a historical phenomenon, a felt experience. Third, whatever spiritualizing of this event may be found among the Colossian believers, Paul emphasizes the bodily and historical to bring together a human Christ and real human beings into a relationship that has historical results: the physical death of the human Jesus is to save lost people from the self-destructiveness of their sins. What happens to forgiven people has public consequences (compare 2:9)—consequences that take place before our very eyes.
The result of conversion and God's forgiveness of sins through the crucified and risen Lord Christ is the community's future perfection. The infinitive to present should be seen as telic (in pursuit of a specific goal): "God's `presentation' of the Colossians and all believers is a purpose to be accomplished in the future, not a result already achieved" (Harris 1991:59). Of course Paul will argue that this goal has already been achieved as a result of Christ's death; so that believers, who are already "in" the Lord Christ, have already begun to experience the blessings of the future age (see 3:1-4). At issue for Paul is a particular truth about the future of human history: when Christ returns, the faith community will be given transformed bodies because Jesus died and was resurrected bodily (compare 1 Cor 15).
Three distinct metaphors are pulled together by the conjunction and to describe the future of the faith community. Together, they constitute the credentials required by God for entrance into God's promised shalom: holy . . . without blemish . . . free from accusation. It should not be a problem that Paul mixes metaphors here; he does so often and usually with good reason. In fact, his cultic (holy and without blemish) and legal (free from accusation) metaphors are often found together in the Old Testament, when the prophets speak of a restored Israel's future status before God. Further, both metaphors are hidden in the preceding infinitive to present; to present a proper sacrifice to a forgiving God (the cultic sense) and to present an adequate case before a just God (the legal sense) are both eschatological imperatives. God's forgiveness makes both worship (the cultic sense) and a relationship with God possible, since faith accords with God's demand (the legal sense).
In the first half of verse 23 Paul breaks with tradition to address his readers in a more intimate way. His exhortation to them expresses a condition of their reconciliation, which includes both a positive and a negative element. This exhortation has caused problems for those who think of Paul's idea of salvation in terms of God's unconditional grace. However, Paul's understanding of God's salvation is profoundly Jewish and therefore covenantal. The promise of the community's final justification is part of a covenant between God and the "true" Israel. Even the idea of God's faithfulness to a promise made is modified by the ideals of a covenantal relationship: God's fulfillment is conditioned upon a particular response. According to Paul's gospel, getting into the faith community, which has covenanted with God for salvation, requires the believer's confidence in the redemptive merit of Christ's death (as defined in vv. 21-22). And staying in that community requires the believer to keep the faith. Paul does not teach a "once saved, always saved" kind of religion; nor does he understand faith as a "once for all" decision for Christ. In fact, apostasy (loss of faith) imperils one's relationship with God and with the community that has covenanted with God for salvation. So he writes that the community's eschatological fitness holds if you continue in your faith.
Schweizer's suggestion that we understand Paul's exhortation in terms of his creative integration of redemptive indicatives (the facts of God's salvation) with imperatives (the responses obliged by God's salvation) is misguided, in my view, because it softens the community's required (and difficult) response to God's grace, which is to keep faith in Christ within an anti-Christian world. The negative ingredient of the passage envisions the very real possibility that the community may indeed [move] from the hope held out in the gospel, risking God's negative verdict at Christ's parousia.
Paul's deemphasis of this possibility in his writings is probably explained by his emphasis that God's grace makes the community's faith established and firm. This too, after all, is decidedly Jewish, for God's gift of Torah, like God's gift of Paul's mission among the Gentiles (see vv. 24-27), is to establish the faith of a "true" Israel and secure its future entrance into the promised land (compare Mt 7:24-27).
Despite its great complexity, this passage gives us a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the course of God's salvation. It is something of a road map, tracing the spiritual journey of God's redeemed people from its beginning to its final destination. Thus, verses 13-14 help us understand what happens at the beginning of our spiritual journey, when we are converted to or confirmed in Christ for our salvation from spiritual darkness and death. Verses 15-20 celebrate Christ's current and cosmic lordship over God's creation and new creation, and show why we can be confident, even in the midst of a broken and fallen world, that the Lord Christ continues to mediate the blessings of God's reconciling grace within the life of the new creation, the church. Finally, based on verses 21-23, we are drawn toward the future, the eternal consequences of our reconciliation with God through Christ.
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