Colossian Problems

By Frederick Fyvie Bruce

Chapter 4

Christ as Conqueror and Reconciler

Cosmic Reconciliation

In the Christ hymn of Colossians 1:15-20 Christ is celebrated as the Agent of God in both creation and reconciliation.  His agency in creation is attested by other New Testament  writers; it is emphasized in the letter to the Colossians as part  of the argument that those who have direct access to God through  Christ and are united with Christ have no need to worship beings or forces, which, however powerful, are part of the created order which He brought into existence. 

The idea of Christ's being the Agent in reconciliation, however, is peculiar to Paul among the New Testament writers. Paul is  the only one to mention reconciliation in the theological sense. It  is God who has "reconciled us to Himself through Christ," he told the Christians in Corinth (2 Cor. 5:18).1 And he reminded those  in Rome, "we were reconciled to God through the death of His  Son" (Rom. 5:10). Paul speaks of himself and his colleagues as entrusted with "the ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18). The gospel which they proclaim is "the word of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:19) because in it the invitation is sounded on Christ's behalf: "Be reconciled to God" (2 Cor. 5:20). Those who respond in faith to the invitation have thereby "received the reconciliation" (Rom. 5:11); they "have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 5:1). 

In speaking of the ministry of reconciliation, Paul makes  one statement which seems to envisage a much wider body than  believers as being embraced in God's reconciling work: "God was  in Christ reconciling a world to Himself" (2 Cor. 5:19). The adverbial phrase "in Christ" modifies the periphrastic verb "was reconciling." Though the instrumental evn is used (instead of dia,  to express agency), yet Christ is once again stated to be the Agent in God's work of reconciliation. The translation "a world" has been offered, rather than "the world," simply because the accusative ko,smon lacks the article in Greek; it is not that one ko,smoj among several is the object of the reconciliation. The ko,smoj in question may be the world of humanity (as in John 3:16-17; 12:47) or it may have an even wider reference, like the creation which, according to Romans 8:21, is to "be set free from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children  of God." But the analogy of Romans 11:15, where the "reconciliation of the world" (katallagh. ko,smou) is the sequel to Israel's  rejection, suggests that it is the human family as a whole that is  in view. 

It may be observed in passing that the tense of the verb  "reconcile" in 2 Corinthians 5:19 is not aorist or perfect; it is  imperfect, and periphrastic imperfect at that (h=n . . . katalla,sswn). The reconciliation of the ko,smoj is a continuing  process, not yet an accomplished fact. Its completion, as Romans  11:15 indicates, lies in the future. When the reconciliation of  believers is spoken of, it is indeed an accomplished fact: God who, in Christ, is in the process of "reconciling the ko,smoj to Himself" (2 Cor. 5:19), has through that same Christ “reconciled us [believers] to Himself” (2 Cor. 5:18). While the reconciliation of believers is a completed work, the reconciliation of the world is not. 

But the reconciliation in view in Colossians 1:20, at the end  of the Christ hymn, cannot be equated simply with the reconciliation of the world in 2 Corinthians 5:19 or Romans 11:15, nor yet  with the liberating of creation in Romans 8:21. Too much should  not be made of the fact that the reconciliation of Colossians 1:20 is expressed by means of the double compound avpokatalla,ssw. The same compound is used of the reconciliation of believers to God in Colossians 1:22 and of the reconciliation of believing Jews and Gentiles in one body in Ephesians 2:16. 

The statement at the end of the Christ hymn is that God,  who was pleased in all His fullness to dwell in Christ, was pleased  also "through Him to reconcile all things to Himself whether on  earth or in heaven, making peace through the blood of His cross" (Col. 1:20). The "all things" which are thus to be reconciled  embrace things on earth and things in heaven, just as the "all  things" which were created through Christ embrace "things in  heaven and on earth" (Col. 1:16). The parallelism between these  two references to "all things" leaves no doubt that the same totality is intended in reconciliation as in creation. The "all things" which are to be reconciled to God through Christ include "things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers," all of which are said to "have been created through Him" in the first place (Col. 1:16). But if we have  regard to the portrayal of principalities and powers later in this  letter (and in Ephesians too, for that matter), it is not easy to  think of them as "reconciled" in the same sense as believers. 

In fact the verb in the Christ hymn has a rather different  sense from what Paul normally gives it. If the Christ hymn is an  independent composition which Paul incorporates into his argument, then the situation is intelligible. Paul leaves the word as  it is; there was no need to change it, for it spoke of the peace effected by Christ through the shedding of His blood on the cross. Indeed he goes on immediately to speak of the reconciliation of believers through that same death — a reconciliation necessary because they had formerly been "alienated and hostile in mind," practicing evil works (Col. 1:21). The principalities and powers have also been hostile, malignantly so, but there is no hint that in  their case reconciliation replaces hostility with friendship. As  was stated in the second article in the series,2 reconciliation  applied to them means more of what is, understood as pacification, the imposing of peace, something brought about by conquest. There is thus a close association between the portrayal of  Christ as Reconciler in the Christ hymn and the portrayal of Christ as Conqueror elsewhere in the letter. Perhaps Paul left the verb "to reconcile" unaltered in the Christ hymn (Col. 1:20) because he was about to make it plain in the following exposition that the reconciliation of the hostile powers involved their defeat.

Cosmic Triumph

The portrayal of Christ as Conqueror is given in Colossians  2:15, the climax of a passage which reviews what God has done  for His people in Christ. "When you were dead in your trespasses,"  says Paul, "uncircumcised Gentiles as you were, God  brought you to life together with Him [Christ]. He forgave us all  our trespasses, he blotted out the bond which stood against us, ordinances and all, the bond that was contrary to us; he has taken it out of the way, nailing it to the cross. He stripped the principalities and the powers and made a public exhibition of them, triumphing over them by it" (Col. 2:13-15). 

This passage illustrates the interdependence of exegesis and  translation (both being inseparable elements in interpretation).  To translate a passage it is necessary first to understand it. For  example, the last two words in the translation just offered are "by it" (meaning "by the cross"). But evn auvtw/ might well be rendered  "by Him" (meaning "by Christ"). If God is the subject throughout,  then "by Him" or "in Him" is appropriate. The victory, like the  creation and the reconciliation, is the work of God in Christ. But  it is often held that there is an unobtrusive change of subject from God to Christ in the course of the passage: Lightfoot, for example, argues that the description of what was accomplished on the cross more naturally suggests Christ as the subject, and he locates the change of subject at the words "has taken it out of the way" in verse 14.3 Such a change of subject might come about  if verses 14-15 include the quotation of a hymn celebrating in  pictorial terms the redemption achieved by Christ on the cross;  but this, of course, must remain hypothetical.4 

The statement (at the end of v. 13) that God "forgave us all our  trespasses" is nonfigurative, but it is followed by figurative  expressions which challenge the interpreter. What is "the bond  which stood against us, ordinances and all, the bond that was opposed to us"? God's blotting out of this bond appears to be identical with His forgiveness of believers' trespasses; but what precisely is the bond? It might be said to be the signed acknowledgment of indebtedness, the bond which stood "in our name" — if that is a permissible rendering of the phrase kaqv hvmw/n (in to. kaqv hvmw/n xeiro,grafon). This rendering is proposed by Robinson,  and it makes excellent sense in the context, especially if he is right in identifying the bond with "our written agreement to keep the Law, our certificate of debt to it," which man's failure to keep  the Law has turned into an acknowledgment of bankruptcy. It is  this bond, he says, representing the power which the Law holds  over the confessed Law-breaker, rather than the Law itself, which  Paul views as canceled by God in Christ.5 

But one could accept Robinson's rendering of to. kaqv hvmw/n ceiro,grafon as "the bond which stood in our name" with greater alacrity if such a sense for kata, with the genitive were more securely established. The normal sense of kata, with the genitive is "against," and the rendering "the bond which was against us" could be accepted without question here were it not that it seems  to be tautologous with the following adjectival clause o{ h#n  u[penanti<on h[mi?n, "(the bond) which was contrary to us." Once  again the hypothesis of an underlying hymn on the victory of the cross has been invoked -the clause "which was contrary to us" could have been added by Paul to make the character of the bond more explicitly clear6 — but this writer is reluctant to introduce  this deus ex machina. 

One must also take account of the dative toi/j do,gmasin attached to ceiro,grafon. This writer has translated this as a  dative of accompaniment: "the bond, ordinances and all." Moule makes much the same point by speaking of "the document with its decrees (meaning, apparently, a document containing, or consisting of, decrees).”7 This takes toi/j do,gmasin in the same  sense as the parallel e,n do,gmasin in Ephesians 2:15. But if the  words are rendered "ordinances and all" or "consisting of ordinances," is this not equating the bond with the Law itself? Yes.  There is no doubt a natural reluctance to think of the Law itself as  being blotted out by God; but one must remember the different ways in which Paul speaks of the Law of God. If the Law is viewed as the revelation of God's will, the reflection of His character, summed up in the injunction, "You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy" (Lev. 19:2), then the Law is eternal and unchangeable, holy, righteous, and good (cf. 1 Tim. 1:8). Moule distinguishes this "revelatory" sense of "Law" in the writings of Paul from its legalistic sense, and he uses this distinction to give  a satisfactory answer to the question whether, in Paul's thought,  Christ abrogated the Law or not. "Paul," he says, "saw Christ as  the fulfilment of the law, when law means God's revelation of Himself and of His character and purpose; but as the condemnation and termination of any attempt to use law to justify oneself."8  Those who undertook to observe the Law either as a means of  getting right with God or as the way to higher attainment in spiritual experience soon found that the Law, instead of helping them, bore witness against them.  Perhaps the earliest commentary on these words in Colossians is Paul's statement in Ephesians 2:15 that Christ has  "abolished in His flesh the law of commandments consisting of ordinances." There he is speaking of the removal of the barrier that formerly separated Jews from Gentiles, but in saying that Christ "abolished . . . the law of commandments" he goes as far as anything that he says in Galatians 3:19–4:4 or 2 Corinthians 3:7-16. To be sure, the verb "abolish" (katarge,w) is not used of the  abrogation of the old order in Galatians as it is in 2 Corinthians  and Ephesians, but the same idea is expressed in other words.  And if it be asked how these forthright statements can be squared with Romans 3:31 — where Paul says that through faith we do not "abolish" (katarge,w) the Law but rather establish it —  the answer can only be that in Romans 3:31 "Law" bears its  revelatory sense.  The canceled bond of Colossians 2:14, then, seems to be the  Law, bearing witness against those who tried to use it as the way  to justification or sanctification. Its cancellation is expressed in  two figures: it has been blotted out, and it has been nailed to the cross. The latter figure is specially bold and vivid. It has sometimes been explained in terms of an alleged "ancient custom of cancelling bonds by striking a nail through the writing."9 These  words are by John Pearson, 17th-century bishop of Chester, but  the alleged custom does not appear to be attested before the 16th  century, and probably originated in an inference drawn by some  reader from this very text. Deissmann thinks of the cancellation of a document by crossing it out with a large X (the Greek verb for  this action is cia,zw, from the name of the letter chi).10 But there  is no necessary connection between the cross (stauro,j) of Christ  and the shape of the letter X. Field thinks of the custom of  hanging up spoils of war in temples,11  but it is unlikely that any  such analogy was in Paul's mind.12  What the metaphor says is that Jesus took the damning  indictment and nailed it to His cross — presumably as an act of  triumphant defiance in the face of those blackmailing powers that were holding it over men and women as a means of commanding their allegiance. If there is an analogy here, it may lie in the fact that Jesus" own accusation was fixed to His cross. Just as  His own indictment was fastened there, says Paul, so he takes the  indictment drawn up against his people and nails it to His cross.  His victorious passion sets them free from their bankruptcy and bondage. In the words of Krishna Pal's hymn: 

Jesus for thee a body takes, 
Thy guilt assumes, thy fetters breaks,   
Discharging all thy dreadful debt —   
And canst thou then such love forget?    

But more than that is involved in the victory of Christ. By His  Cross He releases His people not only from the guilt of sin but also from its hold over them: "He breaks the power of canceled sin," as the hymn writer put it. Besides blotting out the record of their indebtedness, He has also conquered those forces which used the record as a means of controlling them. "He stripped the principalities and powers and made a public exhibition of them."  But what is the force of the verb "He stripped"? The form used is the aorist participle middle (a,pekdusa,menoj). In verbs  denoting the putting on or off of clothes, the active voice usually  implies the dressing or undressing of someone else, while the  middle implies the dressing or undressing of oneself. Attempts  have accordingly been made to find this force of the middle voice here. What was it that Jesus stripped off from Himself? 

The Greek fathers, who read the Greek New Testament in their native language, generally took "the principalities and powers" (ta.j avrca.j kai. ta.j evcousi,aj) as the object of the verb (to the middle voice of which they gave its full force). Jesus, that is to say, "stripped off from Himself the principalities and powers." This is the interpretation preferred by Lightfoot: the powers of evil beset Him around, they "clung like a Nessus robe about His humanity," but He tore them off and cast them aside. This avpe,kdusij of His is the prototype for the avpe,kdusij of His people, accomplished in their baptism (Col. 2:11): "in both cases  it is a divestiture of the powers of evil," with the material difference that with Him it was only the temptation, whereas with believers it is the sin as well as the temptation.13 

The Latin fathers did not treat the principalities and powers as the object of the stripping: they regarded ta.j avrca.j kai. ta.j  evxousi,aj as accusative in dependence on evdeigme,tisen ("exhibited") and most of them understood "His flesh" or "His body" to be  what He stripped off. So Augustine, among others, speaks of  Christ as "divesting Himself of His flesh" (exuens se carne).14  This view is maintained by a number of modern exegetes. Robinson takes the passage to mean that Jesus, by divesting Himself of His flesh, laid aside the only medium by which the hostile forces had any chance of exercising control over Him, and in this way demonstrated their impotence.15  But of the Latin fathers, Hilary and Jerome understood the sense to be that Jesus stripped off the principalities and powers.16 They did not disregard the force of the Greek middle  voice, but interpreted it as denoting here not something done to oneself but something done in one's own interest. That is to say, Jesus, in His own interest (and in the interest of His people), disarmed the principalities and powers, depriving them of their strength. Among modern commentators Lohmeyer17 and Schweizer18 hold this interpretation. "These angel-powers," says  Percy, "have been deprived of all their former strength through  the removal of the charges which the law brought against men  and therewith also of the demands of the law itself."19 This is the  interpretation to which this writer is disposed to adhere, but  with the awareness that one of the others may be right. This is  indeed a knotty "Colossian problem." 

But what is to be said of Christ's making a "public exhibition"  of the defeated powers? The verb deigmati,zw, or the compound paradeigmati,zw, could well have been used to describe  what was done to Jesus Himself, when He was exposed to public humiliation on the cross. The compound is used in Hebrews 6:6 of the action of those who "crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put Him to an open shame" (KJV). The implication of Paul's wording then may be that Jesus, by the victory of the Cross, turned the tables on His spiritual assailants; their powerlessness, not His, was publicly exposed. 

Hanson draws attention to the use of paradeigmati,zw in the  Septuagint of Numbers 25:4, which indicates that the ringleaders of the Baal Peor apostasy were "hanged up in the sun before  the Lord." Hanson finds a typological reference to that occurrence  in the present passage. "Moses punished the rulers by hanging them . . . on a tree, whereas Christ overcame the powers by Himself hanging on a tree."20  It is an ingenious argument, which  would be rather more convincing if x.u,lon ("tree") and not stauro,j ("cross") had been used by Paul in Colossians 2:15. 

As for the phrase "triumphing over them," this is one of two instances of the verb qriambeu<w in the New Testament; in both it governs an object in the accusative. The other instance is 2 Corinthians 2:14, "thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumph" (qriambeu,onti hvma/j). But those who are led in  triumph are apparently not the defeated captives but the conqueror's retinue, joyfully acclaiming him with shouts of "Io  triumphe!" It has been argued that in Colossians 2:15 the principalities and powers are similarly engaged, that they are the heavenly host, celebrating Christ's victory.21 But this seems to be  incompatible with the context. It is more natural to view the  principalities and powers here as the defeated foes, driven in front of the triumphal chariot as involuntary and impotent witnesses to their conqueror's superior might.22 

The Cross of Christ, in short, was the answer to the specious  "philosophy" with which the minds of the Colossian Christians  were being beguiled. How absurd it was to pay tribute to those forces which, it was held, controlled the way from God to this world and back from this world to God! That way was now controlled by one person -by Him who vindicated His sovereignty over the principalities and powers. Their envious hostility to human beings could no longer be indulged; they had been pacified by One stronger than themselves. Whatever power they once exercised, they were now the "weak and beggarly elements" that Paul declares them to be in Galatians 4:9.    

A Message for Today

When Paul says in Colossians 1:15 that all things were created through Christ, "things in heaven and things on earth, visible and invisible," he might have added, had appropriate  Greek words been available in his day, "personal and impersonal." If it is asked whether the spiritual forces which Christ  vanquished on the Cross are to be regarded as personal or impersonal, the answer is probably "both." Whatever forces there are, of either kind, that hold human souls in bondage, Christ has shown Himself to be their Master, and those who are united to Him by faith need have no fear of them. 

One may think of all the influences that compel people to act in certain ways. The influence of inherited and indwelling sin is known; the gospel tells explicitly how that influence can be overcome. But there are other influences which make people act in ways which, in reflective moods, their conscience and reason may disapprove. The current climate of opinion, accepted practices which are ethically dubious, the pressure of conformity to peer groups, the desire for status or security — these and other factors may operate without a person being greatly aware of them. But if he suddenly becomes conscious that he is being moved by them to adopt standards which are less than Christian, then he should recognize these influences to be inimical forces from which he must seek deliverance — and the deliverance is available; it has already been secured. 

Many people are acutely conscious of being involved in situations from which their moral sense recoils, but they are at a loss to see what can be done effectively to resolve such entanglements. Apart from the gospel, they might well think of themselves as puppets in the hands of a blind and unfriendly fate. And they may reason, what difference does it make in the end whether they resist and are crushed immediately, or acquiesce and are crushed a little later?23 

These may be impersonal forces or demons under the power  of Satan, the personal "prince of the power of the air" (Eph. 2:2). Individuals whose faith rests in Christ the Conqueror will not underestimate the potency and malignity of such forces, but they will recognize them to be vanquished forces. Christ crucified and risen is Lord of all. True, believers do not as yet see all things put  under Him, but to be united to Him by faith is to share His victory  here and now, and to enjoy liberation from the forces He has  overcome. 

The consummation of Christ's victory is bound up with the reconciling work which He has effected on the Cross. His victory is seen in the lives of believers, who are reconciled to God through  Him and are now on the Lord's side in the conflict of the ages.  Because the decisive battle has been fought and won, they know  that the ultimate issue is not in doubt. At present, their lives are hid with Christ in God, and when Christ their life is manifested, they will be manifested with Him in glory (Col. 3:4). 

But that is not the whole story. The letter to the Colossians has as its companion and sequel the letter to the Ephesians. If Christ fills the cosmic role ascribed to Him in Colossians, what part is played in this cosmic role by those who are united to Him, "the church which is His body" (Eph. 1:22-23)? To this question Ephesians provides the answer. 

The church, in Ephesians, is God's masterpiece of reconciliation: it comprises those who have been individually reconciled to God through Christ and who also have been reconciled  through the Cross of Christ to each other "in one body" (Eph.  2:14-16). Through this masterpiece of reconciliation "the principalities and powers in the heavenly places" are intended to learn "the manifold wisdom of God" (Eph.3:10) by which He conceived "the plan of the mystery hidden for ages" (Eph. 3:9). This plan, to  be realized in the fullness of time, contemplates the uniting in  Christ of "all things . . . things in heaven and things on earth"  (Eph. 1:10). The church, despite all its limitations which are at  present so obvious, is God's advance model of the wider and more comprehensive fellowship of reconciliation which is yet to be realized. More than that, the church, as the body of Christ, is  God's agency for bringing this comprehensive fellowship into being. God's plan to sum all things up in Christ involves the ministry and witness of those who are already in Christ.  When Paul told the Corinthian Christians that, because of their spiritual immaturity, he had to feed them with milk and not with solid food, he declared that among the mature he has a wisdom to impart — "the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God decreed before the ages for our glory" (1 Cor. 2:7). If the exposition of this wisdom is not provided in the Corinthian correspondence, is there any place in the Pauline writings where it may be found? There is — in Colossians and Ephesians. Schlier finds it in Ephesians.24 True; but there would  have been no letter to the Ephesians had there not first been a  letter to the Colossians.

Editor's Note

This is the fourth in a series of four articles delivered by the author as the W. H. Griffith Thomas Memorial Lectures at Dallas Theological Seminary, November 1-4, 1983.


1 Unless otherwise noted the translations of Greek verses are the author's.

2 F. F. Bruce, "The ‘Christ Hymn’ of Colossians 1:15-20, Part 2 of Colossian Problems," Bibliotheca Sacra 141 (April--June 1984):109-10.

3 J. B. Lightfoot, St. Paul's Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (London: Macmillan and Co., 1879; Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, n.d.), p. 185.

4 Cf. Ralph P. Martin, "Reconciliation and Forgiveness in the Letter to the Colossians," in Reconciliation and Hope, ed. R. J. Banks (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1974), pp. 116-23.

5 J. A. T. Robinson, The Body (London: SCM Press, 1952), p. 43.

6 Martin, "Reconciliation and Forgiveness," pp. 116-20.

7 C. F. D. Moule, An Idiom Book of New Testament Greek (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953), p. 45.

8 C. F. D Moule, "Obligation in the Ethic of Paul," in Christian History and Interpretation, eds. W. R. Farmer, C. F. D. Moule, and R. R. Niebuhr (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1967), p. 392.

9 John Pearson, An Exposition of the Creed (1659; reprint, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1890), p. 373.

10 Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East, trans. L. R. M. Strachan, rev. ed. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1927), p. 333.

11 Francis Field, Notes on the Translation of the New Testament (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1899), pp. 195-96.

12 Mention should be made of the interpretation of this passage in the Valentinian Gospel of Truth, according to which Jesus on the cross published the Father's testamentary edict, contained in "the living book of the living" (trans. G. W. MacRae, in The Nag Hammadi Library in English, ed. J. M. Robinson [Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1977, p. 39). But this, though of great interest for the history of interpretation, throws no light on Paul's meaning.

13 Lightfoot, St. Paul's Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon, pp. 189-91.

14 Augustine Epistle 149.

15 Robinson, The Body, pp. 41-42.

16 For the Old Latin exuens se (as a rendering of avpekdusa,menoj) Hilary read exuens and Jerome substituted exspolians.

17 Ernest Lohmeyer, Der Brief an die Kolosser (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1953), p. 119.

18 Eduard Schweizer, The Letter to the Colossians, trans. A. Chester (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1982), p. 151.

19 Ernest Percy, Die Probleme der Kolosser — and Epheserbriefe (Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1946), p. 98.

20 Anthony T. Hanson, Studies in Paul's Technique and Theology (London: S. P. C. K., 1974), p. 153 et passim.

21 , Cf. W. Carr, Angels and Principalities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 63.

22 The accusative with the verb qriambeu,w is attested in both senses (both for the victor's followers and for his defeated foes).

23 Cf. G. H. C. Macgregor, "Principalities and Powers: The Cosmic Background of St. Paul's Thought," New Testament Studies 1 (1954—55): 27: he quotes to much the same effect from A. D. Galloway, The Cosmic Christ (London: Nisbet & Co., 1951), p. 28.

24 Heinrich Schlier, Der Brief an die Epheser, 5th ed. (Dusseldorf: Patmos-Verlag, 1965), pp. 21-22.


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