Colossians 1:20-23

© Rosemary Bardsley 2014

Colossians 1:20

‘… and through him to reconcile all things to himself’

Verse 20 continues the sentence commenced in verse 19, where Paul states ‘For God was pleased ….’ In verse 18 Paul has referred to Christ’s resurrection from the dead. He now begins to further explain the death of Christ and its purpose and result. He has already stated that we have redemption and forgiveness of sins ‘in Christ’. We know from Ephesians 1:7 that this is ‘through his blood’. He has told us that ‘God was pleased to have all his fullness’ dwell in Christ, so we know that the person whose death he is about to speak of is fully God. Then he continues to tell us what God was pleased to do: he was pleased, through this Christ who is fully God, ‘to reconcile all things to himself’.

God’s act of reconciliation assumes that reconciliation was necessary. And Paul will refer to that necessity in verse 21, which we will look at shortly.

‘all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven’ -  This statement is interpreted in various ways. Some see it as a literal reference to ‘all things’ – the whole created universe. Others see it as a reference to humans [‘things on earth’] and spiritual beings – angels and demons [‘things in heaven’]. Either way there are difficulties.

Unless we have a universalistic understanding of the impact of the cross, we know that not every individual human being is reconciled to God. It is only people who are ‘in Christ’ through faith, who are reconciled. In addition, we also know that the devil and all of his angels/demons will be cast into ‘the bottomless pit’ – they neither desire nor receive reconciliation.

On the other hand, if we understand this clause to refer to the whole created universe, we know that the universe is not in a state of enmity towards God, so what does it mean for the universe to be ‘reconciled’? Yet this seems to be far less a difficulty than the other option holds. Since Genesis 3 the created world exists under God’s curse, and is not in its original or its ultimate state. Romans 8:18-22 makes this clear. It also makes clear that the final redemption of God’s children will also usher in the liberation of the created world from its present unnatural state.

‘… by making peace through his blood shed on the cross’ – This is an expansion of the concept of reconciliation. Peace is the result of God’s act of reconciliation. It is achieved through Christ’s blood shed on the cross.

This peace has a number of dimensions:

Peace is the removal of God’s wrath and of our enmity against God (Romans 1:18; 5:9)
Peace is the removal of the constant need to be justified by our performance (Romans 5:1);
Peace is the removal of both the fear and the presence of condemnation (Romans 8:1)
Peace is the removal of the fear of God’s judgement (1John 4:17,18).
Peace is the removal of the alienation between us and God (Colossians 1:21).

The blood of Christ shed on the cross has achieved all of this. Because of that blood God’s wrath is no longer upon us. Because of that blood, we are already justified, that is, legally acquitted, by God. Because of that blood all the condemnation and judgement that was and is justly and legally due to us, fell on Christ, so that there is no condemnation and no judgement left for us. Ever. Because of that blood all that came between us and God has been removed: there is no more separation and enmity.

God has made peace. God has declared peace. And he has signed the peace treaty with the blood of Christ.

It is only when we grasp hold of this truth, or rather, when we let it grasp hold of us, that we will actually live at peace - with God, and within ourselves. This peace will in turn facilitate peace between us and others. We must remember that we will often look inside ourselves and see there much that would wreck the peace of our relationship with God if we stood in the presence of God on our own two feet; but God no longer looks at us as isolated individuals, he looks at us only in Christ.

Colossians 1:21

‘Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds …’
Paul now tells us why reconciliation was necessary, and why it required the death of Jesus Christ to achieve it. The reason has three parts:

We were alienated from God.
We were enemies of God in our minds.
This was because of our evil behaviour.

In reconciling us to himself God had to deal with two distinct issues:

[1] the separation between himself and man that was imposed by him in Genesis 3. The penalty imposed by him was death [see Genesis 2:17; Romans 6:23], that is separation from himself, the source of our life. The penalty also involved prohibition from life [see Genesis 3:24].

[2] our chosen hostility towards God. We chose to reject and disobey God.

Our reconciliation with God required an action that achieved [1] a legal and just removal of the penalty he himself ordained, and [2] a complete about-turn in our attitude towards him.

In 2Corinthians 5:19 we read that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. As long as our sin stood against us all the wrath and condemnation of God against our sin also stood against us. We were, in effect, his enemies (Colossians 1:21; Romans 5:10). There could be no restoration of a right relationship. But when God counted all of our sin against his Son, Jesus Christ, when he poured out upon him all the judgement and condemnation, when Christ took it all as our substitute, he was in that action reconciling us to himself. [Colossians 1:21,22a]

Paul points out in Romans 3:25,26 that God did it this way ‘so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Christ’. Jesus Christ bore in himself the full penalty and separation from God that was due to us because of our sin. The justice of God has been fully met. The obstacles, from God’s side, have been removed. Our sins are no longer held against us, because they were held against Jesus Christ. [Paul will explain this further in Colossians 2:11-15].

We must never minimize what God has done here. In this action of God he makes it clear that he is for us. We must never again think of him as our enemy, as someone who is standing waiting for us to slip up, waiting to come crashing down upon us in wrath and judgement. God is for us. He demonstrated this once and for all by the death of his Son. [Read Romans 5:10-11; 8:31-39 for further evidence that we are reconciled to God).

The second obstacle, that of our hostility towards God, Paul does not directly address in this letter. Rather he assumes that it has been overcome by the Gospel. It is tucked into his earlier references to really hearing, really believing and really understanding, and his later references to being made alive in Christ.

Colossians 1:22

‘But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death’ - In strong contrast to our prior status of alienation from God and hostility towards God, God has reconciled us. He did it, as Paul has stated previously, through the real, physical death of the real physical body of Jesus Christ.

‘…to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation’ – In strong contrast to our pre-faith description in which we were unacceptable to God and separated from God, he now presents us to himself, in Christ, totally acceptable to him.

When God looks at the believer, that is, the person who is in Christ, what does he see? He sees not the believer, but Christ. Not only has Christ taken our sin and its punishment, removing forever the barrier our sin caused between us and God, freeing us up to once again stand in God’s presence; God, in his act of reconciliation, also presents us to himself holy, without blemish, and free from accusation.

This is so awesome it is almost impossible to believe. How does God see the believer? This verse tells us: holy, without blemish, free from accusation.

We would accuse ourselves. God doesn’t, for Christ has already taken all the accusation.
We would look at our spiritual spots and stains. God doesn’t. He sees not us, but Christ.
We would feel so unholy. But God counts us holy: his precious treasure purchased at great price.

This incredible gift is taught elsewhere in the Scripture:

Ephesians 1:4: ‘He chose us in him … to be holy and blameless in his sight.’
Hebrews 10:10: ‘And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all’.
Hebrews 10:14: ‘… by the one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy’.

Paul has already spoken of this in 1:12 [‘God has qualified you’] and will write further about this in Colossians 3.

The false teachers at Colosse, as we will see later, were making the believers see themselves as individuals who had to meet certain requirements in order to maintain their acceptance with God and with fellow believers. They appeared to have no awareness of this incredible gift described in verse 22 as part of God’s reconciling action in and through the death of Jesus Christ. The same thing is happening today, wrecking the joy and peace of many believers.

Colossians 1:23

‘if you continue in your faith …’ – This seems to be making our reconciliation, including the amazing truth in verse 22, dependent on us. Who are they who are in this state of reconciliation with God? They are those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. From the New Testament perspective ‘faith’ is genuine only if it perseveres. The perseverance, the continuing, is the evidence that the faith is that kind of faith required by the Scripture. The New Testament makes it clear that there is a ‘faith’, which we humans call ‘faith’, but which God knows is not ‘faith’ according to his definition of faith:

John 2:23-25 speaks of those who ‘believed’ in Jesus, but Jesus did not ‘believe’ in them because he knew what was in their hearts. We read later [John 6] that many of his ‘disciples’ stopped associating with him.

The parable of the sower indicates that there is a ‘faith’ which is superficial and does not last.

1John 2:19 teaches that the people who ‘went out’ from the group of believers, never belonged in the first place.

So Paul here makes reconciliation and the associated acceptance by God, dependent on our continuing in faith. True faith is a final decision, because true faith knows in whom it believes. True faith knows that there is no other God to believe in. True faith knows that the salvation it has in Christ is absolute.

This comment from Karl Barth is insightful:

‘And faith is concerned with a decision once for all.  Faith is not an opinion replaceable by another opinion. A temporary believer does not know what faith is. Faith means a final relationship. Faith is concerned with God, with what He has done for us once for all. That does not exclude the fact that there are fluctuations in faith. But seen with regard to its object, faith is a final thing. A man who believes once believes once for all.’ [p20, Dogmatics in Outline]

‘established and firm’ – These words describe those whose faith continues. ‘Established’ - they are grounded on the secure foundation of the gospel. ‘Firm’ - they possess an inner strength that comes from the gospel.

‘not moved from the hope held out in the gospel’ – literally the Greek reads ‘not moving away …’. There is no constant looking around and seeking after something additional to the gospel. In Ephesians 4:14 Paul spoke of immature Christians being ‘tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching …’. Here in Colosse the false teachers were enticing the believers to move away from the sure foundation of the gospel – away from Christ alone and grace alone, and into a Christ plus and a grace plus perception of truth and salvation. A similar temptation faced the recipients of the Letter to the Hebrews, in which serious warnings are given against giving up on faith in Christ and falling into the sin of unbelief. Fake faith eventually lets go of Jesus Christ. True faith, although it is at times weak and small, small as a mustard seed, remains fixed on Jesus Christ. It is this that gives Christian faith its validity. Not its own strength, not its own size, but its object, its focus: Jesus Christ.

So Paul warns the Colossian believers, who were being assailed by false teachers, that all that he has said so far about the salvation they have in Christ, and all that he is about to say, is only true for those who believe in Jesus Christ in a final way. Such faith knows there is no other God to believe in.

‘This is the gospel …’ Paul concludes this section with three statements about the gospel:

You [the Colossian believers] heard it.
It has been proclaimed to ‘every creature under heaven’.
Paul became its servant.

[In verse 6 Paul stated that the gospel was bearing fruit and growing ‘all over the world’ – that is to Gentiles as well as Jews.  His reference is to the universal proclamation of the gospel. In the context of this letter this is important, as the false teachers were trying to coerce believers to conform to Jewish ritual observances.]

Paul mentions all  of this to help the Colossians understand that the Gospel they had heard and believed was in fact the true gospel, in contrast to the message of the false teachers, which was not the universally proclaimed gospel, not the gospel they had originally heard, and not the gospel of which Paul was a servant.