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Colossians 1:15-28

Your idea of salvation is too small!


In his letter to the Colossians, Paul paints on a larger canvas than we tend to notice. The repetition of the word “all” should clue us in to the fact that Paul’s discussion of God’s rescue and salvation is dealing with much more than just a private, individual reality. This thing is cosmic from the very start. Paul has opened this letter by giving thanks to God for the faith of the Colossians and locating their existence against the cosmic horizon of God’s kingdom (1:13). Paul has placed their daily lives of patient faithfulness on the eschatological stage of God’s dramatic and decisive work of new creation (1:10-12). Now he continues with that cinematic scope[1] confessing that Christ “is the image of the invisible God and the firstborn of all creation” (1:15-all quotations are from the NRSV). In him all things were created, all “thrones or dominions or rulers or powers” (1:16; more on that in the next section). Everything has been created through Christ and for Christ, and in him “all things hold together” (1:17).


Paul seems to make a clear connection here between a very high Christology and a very optimistic soteriology. The higher the Christology, the more generous the outpouring of grace and the effectiveness of the rescue. Verses 19 and 20 illustrate this close connection well. “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.” Christians at different ends of the ideological spectrum are tempted to pull back at either one of these extraordinary claims: can we really say that Christ embodies all that God is – can we really say that Christ reconciles all things (and thus all people)? But Paul plows ahead full force into these revelatory and revolutionary truths: in Christ, the fullness of God encounters and envelopes the fullness of what has been created, God gives all (of Godself) to Jesus and Jesus gives all (of creation) back to God. The higher the Christology, the more optimistic the soteriology.


The utter boldness of Paul’s claims here might cause us to ponder: do we really think that the cosmic scope of salvation can be contained in an individual(istic) decision made on one particular moment? Or, perhaps to put it differently, do we really have a sense of how cosmically important that particular decision at the altar actually is? One is not making a contractual deal with God for divine leniency and entry into the afterlife; one is signing on as a participant in the new humanity and in God’s dramatic rescue of everything and everyone (1:23, 27-28; see 3:11). If we’re going to understand how large and dramatic Paul’s concept of salvation is here, we’ve got to expand our imaginations.


Your politics is too small!


In the US, our idea of politics is usually captured by which party one thinks should have the run of the place and we’re becoming increasingly polarized. Politics in the US is about the grasp for power and wealth, usually at the expense of truthfulness. To the degree that US Christians eagerly participate in these partisan battles and pursue these ends, whether on the right or the left, they participate in a diminished and impoverished vision of politics when compared to the politics of Paul’s Christ-poem.


For Paul to claim that Jesus has “first place in all things” and that he is “the head of the body” and that he has created “thrones or dominions or rulers or powers” and that “all things have been created through him and for him” was tantamount to sedition in the Roman empire. In the Roman Imperial political vision, all of these claims should rightfully go to Caesar, who through his ability to produce peace through military might and to produce economic security through exploitation and extraction of wealth, makes him the hope of the (Roman) world and the bringer of a restored cosmos.[2]


Caesar’s dominating reign was imaged all throughout the empire, on statuary like the Augustus at Prima Porta[3] and on coins like the Judea Capta.[4] Imaged on Augustus’ Prima Porta breastplate armor is a depiction of Rome’s victory over the subjected Parthian king. Around this center are images of the Roman gods, suggesting that everything is in its right place when Rome is at the center and on top, dominating others. The Judaea capta coin was issued by Vespasian to commemorate the victory of Rome over Jerusalem by his son Titus in 70 CE. It depicts on one side the victorious Titus and on the other side a vanquished and despondent Judean woman. Rome’s political vision was one of domination, with Rome, powerful and wealthy at the center, and the nations subservient at the margins. To succeed in this world, one would have to play by these rules.


Thus Paul calling Jesus the first and the center of all things was tantamount to sedition. But not the kind of sedition the US witnessed on January 6, 2021, or the kind of coups that countries around the world experience. Jesus’ reign is not one that seeks to grasp power and dominate others, but to lift them up. It seeks not the subjugation of the gentile nations, but their enrichment in God’s glory (1:27). Jesus as Lord, Jesus as king, is a totalizing claim. This one in whom all the fullness of God dwells is the one who holds all things together. So chasing after lesser political visions, lesser gods, will not do. The politics of Jesus is about the renewal of the world and the generosity of God to all peoples and nations, not about grasping for power and wealth or devoting all your energies to making sure your preferred team wins at the ballot box. The Christian political life is a life of suffering love and solidarity with one’s neighbors, especially the most marginalized and maligned.


The ultimate punchline: the cross


This is why the end of the Christ-poem is the ultimate punchline: “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (1:20). Context is everything or the joke doesn’t land. Caesar makes peace by the blood of his cross, by his power to crucify, his power to dominate and exploit and control. Jesus, on the other hand, makes peace by the blood of his cross, by offering himself in suffering love, by taking on crucifixion and refusing to crucify others. “The nations” (gentiles) in Paul’s gospel vision are not peoples to be conquered and dominated, but rather objects of divine love and shared glory (1:27). Only a politics of the cross of Christ will do for Paul and the Colossian church living in the shadow of empire. The repetition of “all” shows that Christ must be Lord of all, and his way must be the only mode of operation for Christians in the world. Any other means of pursuing power distorts God’s vision for the flourishing of all humanity (1:28), every creature (1:23), and every corner of the cosmos (1:20).


Ultimately, Paul sees his vocation of suffering service as serving the goal of making mature Christians (1:28). Mature Christians are those who have the imagination to see the expansive, cosmic and social scope of God’s salvation. Mature Christians are those who will have the cruciform moral seriousness to resist the magnetic pull of imperial politics. The Christ-followers Paul wants to form will seek to keep in their hands at all times the cross rather than the gun, the gavel, or the governing authorities.


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[1] In her excellent study of Romans, Beverly Roberts Gaventa directs us to paying attention to the widescreen cosmic scope of rectification in Romans, rather than stopping at the truncated, “pan and scan” picture of individualistic thinking about justification, When in Romans: An Invitation to Linger with the Gospel according to Paul (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), 23-46.

[2] See the calendar inscription at Priene. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calendar_Inscription_of_Priene

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