A popular text for people who would like to think that in the end all people will be saved is the assertion in Colossians 1:19-20 that through Christ God was pleased to “reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” Steve Chalke, for example, whose book The Lost Message of Paul I have been working through, quotes Karl Barth: “I don’t believe in universalism, but I do believe in Jesus Christ, the reconciler of all.” I have to say that the “brilliant” subtlety of Barth’s solution to the question of who gets saved is lost on me, but I can see the appeal of Paul’s statement: it suggests that ultimately the whole cosmos is reconciled to God because Jesus died. Is that a valid understanding of the passage? I don’t think so.
Jesus’ death meant different things for different people.
From a Jewish perspective it was not difficult to think that he suffered innocently and vicariously the punishment that was due to Israel for its long history of disobedience. Betrayed and condemned by his own people, he suffered at the hands of Roman soldiers what the nation would suffer before the current generation of Jews passed away.
This understanding of Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice, as a “propitiation” for the sins of Israel, makes much less sense from a Gentile perspective. So the significance of the cross for Gentiles is explained on other grounds, as the abrogation of the dividing partition of the Law (Eph. 2:14-16), or as the humiliation of the “rulers and authorities” which once controlled their lives and held them liable to the wrath of God (Col. 2:13-15; 3:6-7).
So when we read this passage, we need to be aware of the story that is going on in the background. It’s in continuity with the Gospel story, but it’s not the same. It’s in continuity with our story, but it’s not the same.
- Colossians 1:15-20 is very difficult to interpret, so this is all somewhat tentative. But nothing ventured, nothing gained.
- The hymnic passage does not stand alone. It is linked to the preceding verses by the relative pronoun “who”: God has transferred them from the authority of darkness to the “kingdom of his beloved Son… who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation”, and so on. So it is, in the first place, a description of the Son who has been given kingdom, who has been given the authority to judge and rule.
- The phrase “image (eikōn) of the invisible God” has various points of contact with Hellenistic-Jewish thought: the human “son” is in the “image” of the creator or father (Gen. 1:27 LXX; 5:1, 3; 9:6; Wis. 2:23; Sir. 17:3); divine wisdom is a “reflection of eternal light and a spotless mirror of the activity of God and an image (eikōn) of his goodness” (Wis. 7:26); a “visible image” of a ruler is set up in a distant part of his territory so that people may honour him in his absence (Wis. 14:17); an artisan fashions an “image” for people to worship (Is. 40:19 LXX); and a father may create an “image” of a dead child and now honour “as a god what was once a dead human being” (Wis. 14:15). How much of this bears upon the meaning of Colossians 1:15 is hard to say, but it probably at least determines an association between “sonship” (perhaps as both “likeness” and kingship) and the creative wisdom of God.
- It seems likely that Jesus is depicted in verses 15-16 as the “firstborn” wisdom of God through whom “all things” were created. But the phrase “firstborn from the dead” in verse 18 makes him both the first of the brotherhood of martyrs to be resurrected (cf. Rom.8:29) and the Davidic king who calls God “Father”, who is delivered from death, and who is exalted among kings of the earth:
He shall call upon me, ‘My Father you are, my God and supporter of my deliverance!’ And I will make him a firstborn (prōtotokon), high among the kings of the earth. (Ps. 88:27–28 LXX)
- The “all things” created through and for the Son who is the Wisdom of God are not “all things”. They are “thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities” (Col. 1:16). Commentators may explain this as a special reference to the “Colossian heresy” (Bruce and O’Brien, for example), but in Paul’s mind they are not philosophical abstractions. They are political realities or entities. Jesus is now “the head of all rule and authority” (Col. 2:10; cf. Eph. 1:21) because God “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them” in Jesus (Col. 2:15). They are the forces in heaven and on earth, unseen and seen, that conspired to have Jesus executed on a Roman cross—the Jewish Council, Herod, Pilate and the powers that he represented.
- There is a good parallel to the distinction between heavenly and earthly powers in 1 Enoch. God sets his Elect One “on the throne of glory” to carry out judgment; he summons “all the forces of the heavens… and the other forces on earth”; and he commands kings, governors, high officials and landlords: “Open your eyes and lift up your eyebrows—if you are able to recognize the Elect One!” (1 En. 61:8, 10; 62:1). Jesus, in effect, is the “Elect One” of Jewish apocalyptic vision, who has been seated at the right hand of God as judge and ruler of the nations, who will eventually be acknowledged by earthly authorities—real kings, governors, high officials and landlords (cf. Rom. 15:12).
So this is how the reconciliation of all things argument works, I suggest. The emphasis on political entities and realities in verse 16 carries over into verse 19: the “all things” on earth and in heaven that are reconciled (apokatallaxai) to God are principally, perhaps exclusively, the forces of “government” that have been controlling human history from the perspective of the Jews. This is not an argument for any form of universalism.
In simple terms, the Hellenistic-Roman oikoumenē had long been at war with YHWH: “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed” (Ps. 2:2; cf. Acts 4:26). Jesus’ death brought about “peace”, the reconciliation of kingdom on earth with kingdom in heaven; and by his resurrection he became the Son who would receive the nations as his heritage, to rule them with a “rod of iron” (Ps. 2:7-9; cf. Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:5; 5:5; Rev. 2:27; 12:5; 19:15).
It was only a matter of time before this became a historical reality.
The powers of kingdom and empire, both human and Satanic, which condemned and executed Jesus had been put to shame, shown to be ineffectual, by the resurrection of God’s Son and his elevation to a place of kingship “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Eph. 1:21).
A new civilisation was coming into existence, in which kings and emperors—Constantine, for example—governments and bureaucracies, would be explicitly ordered under the rule of God through his Son at his right hand. We have to call it “Christendom”—the concrete domain of Christ’s lordship.
This was the good news, Paul goes on to say, that “has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven”—that Jesus was “appointed Son of God in power… by resurrection from the dead” (Col. 1:23; Rom. 1:4, my translation). All government has been subjected to him. It was, therefore, with this political outcome in view that the Gentile believers in Colossae were personally “reconciled” (apokatēllaxen) to the living God, along with Jewish believers (Col. 1:21-23). They had been transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God’s Son.
So for the Colossians the overriding and pressing significance of the distant death of Jesus was that a deeply antagonistic political order had been, was being, and would be reconciled to God. Because they believed in this new future, Israel’s God was prepared to overlook or forgive their sins—they would be justified by this risky faith.
What does it mean for us in the modern western world? It means that we, as God’s people, have lived through all of that, the whole story, including the rise and fall of European Christendom. And the story is not over yet….