November 20, 2016- Proper 29 (Twenty-Seventh Sunday after Pentecost/Reign of Christ )
October 21, 2016 | by David J. Lull
|Reading 1||Reading 2||Reading 3||Reading 4||Reading 1 Alt||Reading 2 Alt|
|Jeremiah 23:1-6||Luke 1:68-79||Colossians 1:11-20||Luke 23:33-43||Jeremiah 23:1-6||Psalm 46|
On Christ the King/The Reign of Christ Sunday, preachers might focus on the readings in Luke, which raise challenging questions. What conditions of “darkness and a shadow of death” exist in your congregation, community, and national context? How does “Christ the King/The Reign of Christ” set you free to serve God “in holiness and righteousness”? How does “Christ the King/The Reign of Christ” guide “your feet” and your church “into the path of peace”?
“Christ the King/The Reign of Christ Sunday” uses the language of monarchy. But, when Jeremiah wrote about God’s restoration of Jerusalem as the center of Israel and Judah, reunited as one kingdom, he called King David’s “righteous descendant” by the name “the LORD is our righteousness,” not “the LORD is almighty”! It is obvious also that Jesus is not a “king” like the Roman Emperor, who acted with vengeance and punitive justice. Rather, in the Gospel of Luke, Christ the King/The Reign of Christ is all about transformative justice through the forgiveness of sins. In Colossians, Jesus, as the one in whom God was fully present, is the image of God. Although in the Gospels friends proclaim and foes mock Jesus as the messianic king, Jesus never calls God a king except in the concept of “the kingdom of God.” Instead, Jesus called God his Abba, for whom the language of tender parental care is more appropriate than the language of monarchy! [See John B. Cobb, Jesus’ Abba: The God Who Has Not Failed (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016).]
(Unless otherwise noted, biblical quotations are adapted from the NRSV.)
The exilic period (597-537 BCE) was a time of immense theological disruption for Judah. Not only was the fabric of daily life in the community destroyed, but the symbolic world that supported life collapsed as well. Serious questions emerged from this turmoil…. How could God allow their destruction? … Was God powerless compared to the more powerful Babylonian deities who had won the war?
[Kathleen M. O’Connor, “Jeremiah,” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, edited by Walter J. Harrelson (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 1051.]
These are timeless questions! As we have heard before in this lectionary series, events in the history of Israel raise questions about God’s power and covenantal faithfulness. If God is “almighty” and faithful to God’s covenant with Israel, why does God allow Israel to suffer defeat by nations not part of God’s covenantal relationship? Either God does not keep faith with God’s covenant, or God is not as powerful as the gods of the victorious nations. Israel’s prophetic tradition holds together beliefs in God’s “almighty” power and in God’s covenantal faithfulness by interpreting Israel’s historical military disasters as God’s punishment of Israel for the
unfaithfulness of its leaders and people. God, who they believed was in control of history, used Israel’s enemies to punish Israel. God also sometimes used Israel’s enemies to save Israel (v. 6). Because Cyrus, the Persian monarch liberated the exiles from Babylonian captivity and helped rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (2 Chr 36.22), Isaiah called him God’s “shepherd” (44.28) and “anointed one” or Messiah (45.1)!
Process theologians don’t think God is “almighty,” if that means God is the cause of all events. God seeks to influence events toward “the good” and redeems all events in God’s experience of the world. Events are the consequences of the decisions and actions of creatures.
Apostasy, idolatry, deceit, injustice, and feigned innocence are the [Judean] nation’s sins against God. Genuine repentance and a return to radical loyalty to the God of their ancestors were their only hope. “Hope for what?” you and I ask more than 2,500 years later. Grace? Judah was doomed…. How do you talk about grace without letting folks feel that they have gotten off the hook for their sins? Isn’t punishment an intrinsic consequence of sin? Shouldn’t it be?…
[Renita J. Weems, “Jeremiah,” in Global Bible Commentary, edited by Daniel Patte and Teresa Okure (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004), 217.]
If God saved Judah and let Israel again “live in safety” (Jer 23.6a; 33.14-16; and compare Lk 1.68-75) without first requiring their repentance, that would be radical grace!
Jeremiah lambasted “shepherds” who destroyed and scattered God’s flock of sheep, because the ruling elite played a role in events that led to the Babylonian captivity. As Renita Weems says, “Much of the prophet’s preaching was directed at the public sphere of policy making—the policies and preachments of kings, priests, scribes, the ruling elite, merchants, and other prophets.” [Weems, “Jeremiah,” 219.] Israel’s disasters were not all the doing of an “almighty” God!
[To segue off the lectionary, it’s worth reading Luke 15 in the light of Jer 23.1-6. Neither the “lost sheep” nor the “lost coin” is culpable! The active voice verbs point to the shepherd and woman as the primary cause of their being “lost.” It’s also possible to interpret the father’s act of acquiescing to the younger son’s request as the primary cause of latter’s being “lost.” The older brother also seems to be “lost” as a result of the father’s actions when the younger son returned. Of course, the two sons are not entirely innocent victims of their father’s actions! And even a sheep and an inanimate coin are not completely passive; they too actively participate in their becoming “lost.” If we take all this into account and follow the traditional interpretation of the shepherd, woman, and father as metaphors for God, these parables seem to recognize that God is not in complete control of human behavior. Classical theism’s “almighty” God might be faulted for losing even one of God’s beloved creatures, whether through their own fault or through the fault of others. We implore God to do a better job when we pray, “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil”!]
Jeremiah reaffirms God’s covenantal faithfulness when he promises that God will “gather the remnant of my flock” in exile and “raise up shepherds” (23.4), one of whom will be a “righteous descendant of David,” who will rule Judah and Israel, reunited into one kingdom with wisdom, justice, and righteousness (v. 5), so that he will be known by the name “The LORD is our righteousness” (v. 6; compare 33.14-16, which seems to say that will be the name of Judah or Jerusalem).
Christians have claimed this prophecy was fulfilled in Jesus, whom God anointed “king” (“Christ”), not just of Judea but of all people—indeed, of everything on earth and in heaven (Col 1.15-20). Jeremiah’s vision of a Davidic messiah served ancient Judeans and Jews throughout the centuries as a metaphor for the LORD’s wisdom, justice, and righteousness. So also Jesus, for Christians, is a metaphor of the wisdom, justice, and righteousness with which God relates to the world.
Finally, lest we think it is easy to discern how and where we fit into Jeremiah’s audience, I will end with Renita Weems’ edgy questions:
Is my context that of Babylon, the megalomaniacal empire, or Judah, the tiny kingdom desperately grabbing for power out of its own driving insecurity and fear? Am I Jeremiah the activist, fighting and complaining at the same time? Or am I like the citizens of Judah: clueless as to what the fuss is all about? Where do I stand in the prophet’s preaching? Am I more Babylonian than I am a Judean, more elitist and obstinate in my thinking than compassionate and caring? Do I see the poor and marginalized, or am I too committed to putting distance between anything or anyone that reminds me that for the things I have accumulated someone was made to suffer? Is there anything Jeremiah-like in my commitments?
[Renita J. Weems, “Jeremiah,” in Global Bible Commentary, 224.]
When he was “filled with the Holy Spirit,” John’s father, Zechariah, delivered this prophecy (v. 67), called the Benedictus, based on the Latin translation of the first word “Blessed.” In the first part (vv. 68-75), John’s father praises God for sending Jesus in fulfillment of God’s promise, “through the mouth of God’s ancient holy prophets” (v. 70), to “raise up for us a horn of salvation [that is, a mighty savior] in the house of God’s servant David [that is, among David’s descendants]” (v. 69). That functions as a prelude to Zechariah prophecy about his own son’s prophetic role as Jesus’ forerunner (vv. 76-79), to inform the people that Jesus brings them “salvation through the forgiveness of their sins” (v. 77; also see 3.3).
“Christ the King” will be the promised descendant of David. “The Reign of Christ” will not be that of a global superpower, flexing its military and economic power. Rather, its strength—“a horn of salvation,” a metaphor of saving power (v. 69)—will be used for liberation (v. 68). Specifically, “Christ the King/The Reign of Christ” will bring “salvation” from “the hand” (a metaphor for power) of enemies and all who hate (v. 71). In that way, “Christ the King/The Reign of Christ” will fulfill “God’s oath made to Abraham, to make it possible, by deliverance from the power of enemies, to serve God without fear” and “in holiness and righteousness” (vv. 74-75).
Hope for safety from enemies is as universal now as it was then. Ancient Israel existed in the midst of series of hostile empires. For the first four-five centuries, Jesus’ followers experienced hostilities from Judeans and Romans. Just as Jeremiah instructed Judeans to live peaceably with their Babylonian captors, Jesus taught his followers to “love” their enemies. So also today we earnestly yearn for safety from people who hate, the end of hostility between peoples, and a world without physical, verbal, and emotional violence. As back then, so now the identification of “the others” as “our enemies,” calls for their deportation and exclusion from entry into the U.S., and the use of the full power of the U.S. military to annihilate “our enemies” competes with the message “love overcomes hate.”
At the time of Jesus, the Romans claimed that their empire brought peace and an end to war. But it did so by force and through the violence that its military power made peoples around the known world to suffer. The Romans proclaimed the “favor” of the gods brought them global military victories. The gods’ “favor” toward the Romans, they claimed, was not because the gods “forgave their sins.” On the contrary, they claimed that their superior moral and military virtues won the “favor” of the gods! So also today many Americans talk of “American exceptionalism.”
Zechariah’s prophecy of “Christ the King/The Reign of Christ” could not be more different! “Christ the King/The Reign of Christ” will be powerful (like a bull or ox’s “horn”), but Christ will not have any military, and he will not subdue people with violence or coercion. Rather, people will be “strongly urged” to accept “Christ the King” and to enter “the Reign of Christ” (16.16). “Christ the King/The Reign of Christ” will not proclaim God’s “favor” in recognition of the superiority of the people’s moral virtues! Rather, God’s “favor” will be God’s free gift of “the forgiveness of sins” (1.77; 3.3; 5.20-21, 23-24; 7.47-49; 11.4; 17.3-4; 24.47; Acts 2.38; 5.31; 10.43; 13.38; 26.18).
Throughout this prophecy, Zechariah speaks of “his people,” “them,” “their,” and many first person plurals. Do these pronouns include only Israelites or only gentiles? The answer is neither. Rather, throughout the Gospel and Acts, it is clear that God’s has sent Jesus to “redeem” Israelites by Jesus’ (and John’s) proclamation of “the forgiveness of their sins.” It is also clear that the same proclamation is for gentiles, and that their inclusion in God’s people fulfills God’s promise to the Judeans’ ancestors that Abraham’s descendants will be as numerous as the stars (Gen 15.5), because Abraham will be the “ancestor of a multitude of nations” (Gen 17.5; compare Lk 1.55; 2.29-32; 3.8; Acts 3.25; and Rom 4.17).
The past tenses “has visited” and “has delivered” in v. 68 could refer to the birth of Jesus. Although Jesus’ birth itself is understood as a divine “visitation” (1.26-38), the “deliverance” that is the purpose of God’s “visit” through Jesus will become effective later in Jesus’ life and death. Therefore, these past tenses seem to be proleptic—that is, based on the certainty that these future events will occur, their occurrence is viewed as already past (see the “proleptic/futuristic aorist” in Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], 563-64). On the other hand, God “visited” Israel and “delivered” them many times long ago (compare, e.g., Lk 1.71 and Psa 18.17; 106.10). Jesus’ birth and ministry belong to this history of “divine visitations.”
Second Temple Judaism did not separate spiritual deliverance from social and political liberation. God’s covenantal faithfulness included both throughout Israel’s history of returning from exile, rebuilding the temple, and living in safety. All of that reflected God’s presence and their restored relationship with God.
Now I need to turn to a (slightly “amplified”) translation of vv. 76-79, because the standard translations, which break them up into discrete sentences to achieve an easier audio experience, obscure the logical flow of Zechariah’s prophecy about his son John.
76 And so you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give to his people knowledge of “salvation through the forgiveness of their sins,” 78 which is through our God’s merciful heart, by which a Branch of David from on high will visit us, 79 in order to appear to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, in order to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Verse 77 states that “to give to God’s (and Jesus’) people the knowledge of salvation…” is the purpose of John’s preparing the Lord Jesus’ “ways” (v. 76). Two clauses define “salvation”: The first, “through the forgiveness of sins” (v. 77), is the means of “salvation.” The second, “through our God’s merciful heart” (v. 78a), is the agent of “forgiveness.” The Greek word σπλάγχνα (splanchna), “guts,” refers to the seat of compassion; therefore, it is a metaphor for the love and affection that comes from God’s
“guts” or heart (compare BDAG σπλάγχνον, splanchnon 1, 2, and 3).
The opening words of the next phrase, “by which” (v. 78b), refer back to “our God’s merciful heart” as the means “by which” God will send a “Branch of David” to “visit us.” The Greek word ἀνατολή (anatolē), which has been translated “the dayspring/daybreak,” “the rising sun,” and “the dawn,” is a metaphor for the coming of the Messiah. Another translation is “a shoot” or “branch” (the Greek lacks a definite article), which is another common metaphor for a Davidic Messiah (e.g., see the LXX use of ἀνατολή in Jer 23.5; 33.15; Zech 3.8; 6.12; and compare Isa 11.1, which has ῥάβδος [rhabdos], “young shoot,” instead of ἀνατολή because the Hebrew uses a different word for “shoot”). In Num 24.17, the LXX uses the verb ἀνατέλλω (anatellō) in “a star shall rise up from Jacob,” which refers to a Messiah who will be a descendant of Jacob. Perhaps Lk 1.78 is supposed to have a double reference to a “star” who will be a descendant of Jacob as well as a “shoot” who will be a descendant of David. This Messiah will come ἐξ ὕψους (ex hypsous), “a high place,” namely, heaven—that is, from God, whose “heart” is “merciful.”
In v. 78, the Greek verb ἐπισκέψεται (episkepsetai), which the standard translations render “will break upon,” is the same verb used in v. 68, which the NRSV translates as “has looked favorably on,” but which others translate as “has visited” (KJV, RSV, NAB), “has come to help” (NET and CEB), or simply “has come” (NIV). [Compare BDAG ἐπισκέπτομαι, episkeptomai 2 and 3.] The infinitive ἐπιφᾶναι (epiphanai) in v. 79a expresses the purpose of the Messiah’s “visit” (v. 78): namely, “in order to appear/shine a light….” The infinitive τοῦ κατευθῦνα (tou kateuthyna) in v. 79b expresses the purpose of the Messiah’s appearing/shining a light: namely, “in order to guide….”
The people are described as sitting “in darkness and a shadow of death” (v. 79a). This description is not just a reference to those whose sins would sentence them to death, save for God’s “forgiveness” (v. 77). It also alludes to exiled Israelites living as captives of Assyria in the 8th century BCE (Isa 9.1-2) and to “prisoners” under Babylonian captivity who face death as they sit in dark dungeons (Isa 42.7), “in misery and in irons” (Psa 107.10, 14), but live in hope of deliverance (Isa 49.9-10).
This description also fits Jesus’ followers! For Jesus said “they will arrest you and persecute you, by handing you over to the synagogues and prisons, and by bringing you before kings and governors because of my name…. You will be handed over even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death” (Lk 21.12, 16). Jesus also promised that they will not perish in Sheol, and that their perseverance will “save” their “souls” (21.18-19). [See my commentary for last Sunday.] The other side of “those who sit in darkness and a shadow of death” were those who were responsible for creating the condition of “darkness and a shadow of death.” The latter, at the time of Jesus, and later of Luke-Acts, were Roman imperial authorities and religious leaders.
What conditions of “darkness and a shadow of death” exist in your congregation, community, and national context? How does “Christ the King/The Reign of Christ” set you free to serve God “in holiness and righteousness”? How does “Christ the King/The Reign of Christ” guide “your feet” and your church “into the path of peace”?
[For OT quotations and allusions throughout the Benedictus, see the verse-by-verse list in Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, Anchor Bible 28 (Garden City NY: Doubleday, 1981), 374-75.]
To catch the logic of v. 11, which the NRSV obscures, we have to back up to v. 9. [Compare the NET 1.9-11 and my translation below.]
9 Because we have heard of your love, given to you by the Spirit, we also, since the day we heard of it, have not ceased praying and asking on your behalf, that you might be filled by God with the knowledge of God’s will by the wisdom and understanding given to you by the Spirit, 10 so that you might live in a manner worthy of the Lord, so as to please him in every way, by bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God, 11 so that you may be strengthened with all power by God’s majestic might, for the purpose of complete perseverance and patience, while you joyfully 12 give thanks to the Father, who has made you fit to share in the saints’ inheritance—that is, in the light that is the very nature of God—13 who has rescued us from the dominion devoid of light and transferred us into the dominion ruled by God’s beloved Son, 14 in whom we have deliverance—that is, the forgiveness of sins—
15 who is the invisible God’s image,
the one who is the firstborn over all creation.
16 For by him were created
all visible things and invisible things
in the heavens and on earth—
whether thrones or dominions,
whether rulers or powers—
all things have been created through him and for him.
17 That is, he himself is before all things,
and in him all things exist in a coherent whole.
18 (Also, he himself is the head of the church body.)
He is the beginning
the firstborn of those from the dead,
so that he himself might become preeminent among all things.
19 For, in him all of God’s being was pleased to dwell,
20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things—
whether things on earth or things in the heavens—
by making peace through his death on the cross.
The emphasis in the preamble (vv. 9-14) to the Christ-hymn (vv. 15-20) is on God as a God who “strengthens” or “empowers.” That means that God is the source of possibilities for the deeds of humans (and other creatures). That also means that God relies on people (and other creatures) to conform to God’s will. This double-sided theme continues in the language of being “made fit,” “qualified,” “enabled,” or “empowered” by God (see BDAG ἱκανόω, hikanoō) to participate in “the saints’ inheritance,” which is “the light” that is the very nature of God (v. 12). God’s empowering power is also described as bringing about a rescue and transfer from a life devoid of God’s enlightening wisdom and understanding—that is, a life at odds with and in disregard for God’s will—into a life ruled by “God’s beloved Son” (v. 13).
Verse 14 starts out with the idea that this rescue operation, which God performed in and through “God’s beloved Son,” was a deliverance from captivity, but then the explanatory clause seems to switch to the judicial language of God’s “forgiveness of sins” (compare 2.14). However, the Greek words ἀπολύτρωσις (apolytrōsis) and ἄφεσις (aphesis), translated “deliverance” and “forgiveness” respectively, connote both “release from captivity” and “acquittal” (see BDAG). God creates the possibility of freedom as liberator and judge. God’s pronouncement of the forgiveness of all your sins creates the possibility that, henceforth, you may live free from the power of your sins to burden you with guilt, or tempt you to justify your actions, and to induce you to repeat them.
The Greek phrase “in whom” refers to “God’s beloved Son” both as the person where God effected this rescue operation and as the agent through whom God accomplished it. We “have” deliverance from and forgiveness of sins by participation in “God’s beloved Son,” in whom “God was pleased to dwell fully” (v. 19). At the end of v. 14, early scribes added the words “through his blood,” taken from Eph 1.7; but the original shorter version (see Bruce M. Metzger, Textual Commentary on the New Testament, 2nd ed. [Stuttgart: Deutsche Biblegesellschaft/United Bible Societies, 1994], 554; and the NET note 26tc) does not specify a particular event in which God effected this deliverance and forgiveness in and through “God’s beloved Son.” However, the end of the hymn, which comes next, refers to his death (see comments below on v. 20).
The past tenses in v. 13 (God “rescued … and transferred …”) could be proleptic—that is, references to what is certainly going to happened in the future as if they have already happened in the past. An example of prolepsis in the undisputed letters is Rom 8.30, where Paul refers to the future glorification with a past tense: “those whom God justified,” which refers to a past event, “God also glorified,” which refers to the future “glorious freedom of God’s children” (Rom 8.21). We could also compare Rom 7.24-25a, where Paul’s thanksgiving (v. 25a) could imply that his plea (v. 24) was answered by “God through Jesus Christ our Lord,” who rescued him from “this mortal body.” A future tense is also possible, and perhaps more likely: “God through Jesus Christ our Lord” is the one “who will rescue me from this mortal body.” The writer of Colossians, however, consistently writes about future eschatological events as present realities:
- “We have deliverance” (1.14).
- “God has now reconciled you” (1.22).
- “You have been filled” (2.10). This perfect tense means either they already have been filled with the fullness of God (2.9 and 1.19), or their new life in Christ has been completed, so that nothing should or need be added (2.16-23). Compare 1 Cor 4.7-10.
- Their “fleshly body has been removed” (2.11).
- “You were also raised with Christ” (2.12 and 3.1, which seem to be interpreting Rom 6.4).
- “God made you alive together with Christ” (2.13).
- “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3.3, which looks like an interpretation of Gal 2.20a).
- And yet the writer also preserves the future tense in 3.4: “When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”
Verse 21 seems more naturally connected with v. 14. In addition, a relative pronoun introduces vv. 15-20 in the form of a hymn (see, e.g., Phil 2.6-11; 1 Tim 3.16; Heb 1.3-4). That suggests that the writer has inserted a pre-existing hymn into the letter at this point.
In v. 15a, the Greek word εἰκὼν (eikōn) refers here to his being in the “image”—that is, in the form and nature—of God. It also refers to his being an “icon”: someone who makes visible the “invisible God.”
In v. 15b, the Greek word πρωτότοκος (prōtotokos), translated “firstborn,” lacks a definite article, so that we have to decide if “firstborn” is indefinite (“a firstborn”; i.e., one among several) or definite (“the firstborn”; i.e., the first in a series or the one and only). Because the “firstborn” is by definition one of a kind, a unique individual, it must be definite. But, does “the firstborn” pertain to the birth-order of an eldest child, or to the special status of “the firstborn,” who is “preeminent in rank” over other offspring? At issue is the meaning of the prefix πρωτό- (prōto-), and how much weight to give to the suffix -τοκος (-tokos). The prefix “first” has a temporal connotation, as v. 17a says: “He himself is before all things.” It also includes a connotation of supremacy, as vv. 16-18 state. Verse 18 perfectly combines the temporal and supremacy connotations: “he is the beginning,” not only in a temporal sense, but also in the sense that he has a privileged status as the (co-)creative origin and source of all things (v. 16) and as the one in and by whom “all things hold together” (v. 17). He is also “the firstborn from the dead” (v. 18b), in the temporal sense of his being the first human to be raised from the dead, but also because henceforth he is the one with the highest rank. As a result, “he came to have first place among all things” (v. 18c).
To return to the Col 1.15, we also have to determine what kind of genitive πάσης κτίσεως (pasēs ktiseōs) is. Here are the options and their implications:
- The partitive genitive would make “God’s beloved Son” the “firstborn among many creatures.” Whether the accent is on his “preeminence in rank” or on a literal chronological birth-order, the partitive genitive would imply that he was created, not eternal. That would not be inconsistent with the affirmation in the next verse that “God’s beloved Son” created everything (v. 16). For this hymn is a riff on the Wisdom tradition, according to which God created Wisdom as God’s first “work,” precisely to be co-creator with God. For example, in Prov 8.22-23, Wisdom says “The LORD created me at [or as] the beginning of the LORD’s work, the first of the LORD’s acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.” Wisdom goes on to say, “then I was beside the LORD, like a master worker; and I was daily the LORD’s delight, rejoicing before the LORD always” (Prov 8.30). The Wisdom of Solomon describes “Wisdom” as the “fashioner of all things” (Wisd 7.22) and “a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image [εἰκὼν (eikōn)] of God’s goodness” (7.26).
- . The implications of a genitive of reference (“who is . . . the firstborn with reference to all creation”) are not significantly different from a partitive genitive: The “firstborn” would still be a created being.
- A genitive of subordination would make “the firstborn” preeminent in rank over all creatures. Daniel B. Wallace, for example, argues that “although most examples of subordination involve a verbal head noun, not all do (notice 2 Cor 4:4…, as well as Acts 13:17). The resultant meaning seems to be an early confession of Christ’s lordship and hence, implicitly, his deity” (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 104; also see 128).
Wallace might be right that subordination is the better option, but it is not necessary to make the point about Christ’s sovereignty and deity. The Wisdom tradition and Col 1.16-20 (also see 2.9) hold together the beliefs that “the firstborn” is the first created being, the created being preeminent in rank over all other creatures, and the visible image of the invisible God, in whom God fully dwells! In a similar way, when Paul says “God’s Son” became “the firstborn among many brothers and sisters” who “conformed to his image” (Rom 8.29), it implies that he is like them and ranks over them.
Verse 16, of course, does not include “the invisible God” in “all things in heaven and on earth, things visible and invisible” that were created by “the firstborn”! Compare “But when it [i.e., Psalm 8] says, ‘All things are put in subjection [under Christ],’ it is plain that this does not include the one [i.e., God] who put all things in subjection under him [i.e., Christ]” (1 Cor 15.27). And in Phil 2.9-11, although God gave Christ a preeminent rank, so that “all things in heaven and on earth and under the earth would confess ‘Jesus Christ is Lord,’” God, as “the Father” of all things, is the one to whom honor and prestige (“glory”) are due.
In the phrase “thrones or dominions or rulers or powers,” the word θρόνοι (thronoi) is a metaphor for those who sit on thrones—that is, authorities, whether on earth or in the heavens. The word κυριότητες (kyriotētes) refers to those who rule over “dominions,” whether on earth or in the heavens. If all of these are malevolent powers, they might refer to τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου (ta stoicheia tou kosmou), the “elements of the world” (2.8; also see Gal 4.3, 9), thought of as powers, and/or the “angels” (2.18). That would mean that Christ, “the firstborn among all created things,” created them, and that they were created for his benefit (see the phrases “by him all things in heaven and on earth were created” and “all things have been created through him and for him”). Is it really conceivable that Christ created evil powers for his benefit? I don’t think so.
Perhaps we are not supposed to think of them as evil powers, but as the powers that make up what we call the natural world and the powers of human societies. As v. 17b says, “by and in” Christ, “all things exist in a coherent whole.” Christ, like Wisdom in Jewish traditions and Logos in Stoicism, is the source of order in the world, just as “he himself is the head of the church body” (v. 18a). Christ is the power—sovereign ruler (“king”)—over all other powers. Even so, God and Christ do not have all the power; rather, with preeminent rank, they exercise power in relation to other powers.
Christ became “preeminent among all things” when God made him “the beginning, the firstborn of those raised from the dead” (v. 18b; compare 1 Cor 15.20, 23). Jesus’ resurrection is not a “one-off” event. It is “the beginning.” Death does not rule over all creation! Christ rules over all creation as the image, reflection, mirror who makes visible the invisible God’s loving care that nothing of value perishes. “For, in him all of God’s being was pleased to dwell” (v. 19; compare 2.9). The verb combination εὐδόκησεν … κατοικῆσαι (eudokēsen … katoikēsai), “was pleased to dwell,” alludes to God’s choice to “dwell” in Jesus—and to God’s pleasure with the decision! Moreover, it says that all of God was in Jesus, so that nothing of God was left out or held back: not God’s power, not God’s love, not God’s righteousness and justice, and not God’s divine immortality. The flipside of what God did to enter fully and completely in Jesus is Jesus’ faithfulness—his full conformity to and imaging of God’s power, love, righteousness and justice, and divine immortality.
What God took pleasure in doing continues in v. 20: “through him to reconcile to himself all things—whether things on earth or things in the heavens—by making peace through his death on the cross” (compare 2.14). The reconciliation of all things to Christ restores a broken creation to its intended (and original?) “coherent whole” in Christ (v. 17). Just how Christ through his death on the cross accomplished this “reconciliation” and “peace” is explained in vv. 21-22: “Even though you were formerly estranged and hostile in your minds, demonstrated by your evil deeds, Christ has now reconciled you in his fleshly body through his death, in order to present you as holy people—that is, as blameless and beyond reproach before God.” This explanation combines explicit metaphors of cultic rituals and judicial acts, on the one hand, and implicitly a reference to Christ as “a visible image of the invisible God.”
We begin with the phrase παραστῆσαι ὑμᾶς (parastēsai hymas), “in order to present you,” which has three possible meanings:
- First, because “to present someone” can be “almost equivalent” to “make” or “render” (BDAG παρίστημι, paristēmi 1,c), it depicts Christ’s transformation of former evil-doers into “holy people.” This use of the term prepares the way for the two metaphors from the settings of the temple and courtroom.
- Second, as a technical term “in the language of sacrifice” (BDAG παρίστημι, paristēmi 1,d), it portrays Christ as a priest who presents former evil-doers transformed into “holy”—that is, “unblemished and innocent”—sacrifices to God (compare Rom 12.1).
- Third, as a legal technical term (BDAG παρίστημι, paristēmi 1,e), it portrays Christ as someone who brings evil-doers before God who, as a judge, acquits them by declaring their sins are “forgiven” (v. 14).
If, as some theologians argue, God’s word cannot fail to achieve its purpose, but is performative, God’s declaration of forgiveness makes persons holy and innocent. Viewed from a process/relational perspective, on the one hand, God unilaterally “makes peace” with all things in God’s own experience of the world, by which all things become holy as they exist in God. On the other hand, everything must make its own decision whether to conform to God’s peace or to remain “estranged from” and “hostile to” God by continuing to do “evil deeds.” This interaction between God’s power and the individual’s self-determination is expressed in the earlier phrases “so that you may be strengthened” (v. 11) and “enabled” or “qualified” or “empowered” (v. 12).
The location and means of this transformative sacrifice and judicial declaration is expressed in v. 22 with the phrase “in his fleshly body through his death,” which takes us back to v. 20 and the phrase “by making peace through his blood on the cross.” The words “his blood” are a metaphor for “his shedding of his blood” (compare BDAG σταυρός, stauros 2). Some interpreters think this is sacrificial language alluding to a ritual of pouring blood on the altar (e.g., see BDAG αἷμα, haima 2,b). That is possible, insofar as the language of v. 22 includes a possible metaphor of sacrifice. But, “blood” plays no role in v. 22, which refers to the death of Jesus’ “fleshly body.” Christ’s “shedding of his blood on the cross,” therefore, simply refers to his death.
Whatever that means in the letter to the Colossians, one possible way to interpret this language about Christ’s reconciliation of all things “through his death on a cross” (v. 20) and “in his fleshly body through his death” (v. 22) is through the “iconographic” role of Christ (v. 15). Through his death on a cross, Christ made visible “the invisible God.” Because the full being of God was in Christ (1.19 and 2.9)—that is, “in his fleshly body” (in distinction from the “heavenly body” of his resurrection)—his self-sacrificial and faithful death reveals God’s reconciling and peace-making heart.
If we must use the monarchical language of “Christ the king” on this Sunday, at least Col 1.11-20 describes a “king” who is all about transformative justice. Personally, I prefer Christ as the image of God’s tender parental care, as in Hos 11.3-4 and in Jesus’ Abba!
This narrative of Jesus’ crucifixion depicts him as “the righteous sufferer” of Psalm 22. In contrast to Mk 15.34 and Mt 27.46, however, Jesus is not abandoned by God. “Even at his crucifixion, Jesus is no hapless victim. He continues to take the initiative in the events that seek to engulf him. His trust in God never wavers…. Jesus’ royal status and role as Savior are confirmed, not denied, on the cross.” [From Joel Green’s comments on 23.26-49 and 23.32-43, in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, 1900.]
- First, Jesus extends forgiveness to his executors (v. 34). Even in his dying, Jesus takes charge of events, like a “king.” But Jesus is not a “king” like the Roman Emperor, who inflicts vengeance and punitive justice. Rather, the royal Jesus is all about forgiveness—transformative justice.
- Second, as the leaders, soldiers, and one of the criminals mock Jesus, they ironically affirm his role as Savior, Messiah, God’s chosen one, King of the Judeans, who is capable of “saving” himself (vv. 35-39). They show that Jesus is the antitype of the Roman Emperor, who would save himself at the expense of others!
- Third, the people are by-standers, “watching,” no longer calling for Jesus’ crucifixion (vv. 13-25) and not engaging in the mocking, in contrast to the soldiers and Judean leaders.
- Fourth, one of the criminals affirms Jesus’ innocence (v. 40-41).
- Fifth, in response to one of the criminals’ request that Jesus “remember” him when Jesus “comes into” his “kingdom,” Jesus, as one with royal authority, assures him, “today you will be with me in paradise” (vv. 42-43).
The last point calls for comments on several details. The first is the introductory verb ἔλεγεν (elegen), which is in the imperfect tense. The use of this tense is common in narratives and typically is equivalent to a simple past tense “he said,” as in all the standard translations, although it can also be used “to introduce a vivid, emotionally-charged statement” (Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 543). Here, however, the imperfect matches the use of the imperfect to introduce continuously repeated, emotionally charged statements. For example, the imperfect verb ἐβλασφήμει (eblasphēmei), which introduces one of the other criminals’ harangue (v. 39), means “he kept on repeatedly slandering Jesus, saying….” The imperfect verb ἐξεμυκτήριζον (exemyktērizon), which introduces the leaders’ harangue (v. 35), also means “they kept on repeatedly ridiculing Jesus, saying….” In the same way, in v. 42 the criminal “kept on repeatedly saying, ‘Jesus, remember me…!” The others repeatedly hurled hostile verbal stones at Jesus. This criminal affirmed Jesus’ role as God’s agent of salvation by repeatedly pleading that, “on the other side of his suffering,” Jesus would remember him [compare François Bovon, Luke 3 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 311]. This request to be remembered echoes Israel’s belief that “God’s memory is the best guarantee of protection and salvation” (Bovon, Luke 3, 311). See, e.g., Gen 9.15; Lev 26.45; Deut 9.27; 2 Chr 6.42; Neh 13.14, 31b; Job 14.13; Psa 25.7; 74.2; 106.4; Isa 43.25; and Jer 15.15.
The Greek term παράδεισος (paradeisos), “paradise” refers to a “garden” (compare BDAG παράδεισος, paradeisos) as “the abode of the righteous dead” (NET 23.43 note 104sn), where they “enter into their glory” (24.26). The term βασιλεία (basileia), “kingdom,” however, is more complicated, in part because it can refer to a realm ruled by a monarch or to the authority exercised by a monarch (“kingly power”). It is also complicated by the disagreement in the manuscripts about the preposition in v. 42.
- With the preposition εἰς (eis), the emphasis in “when you come into your kingdom [or kingly power]” would be on “into your kingdom/kingly power,” which would refer to Jesus’ entering into “God’s presence at the right hand” (NET 23.42 note 100tc). See 20.42; 22.69; Acts 2.25, 33-34; 5.31; and 7.55-56. That would be comparable to Jesus’ entering into his immortal divine glory (24.26). Jesus’ reply presupposes that he, though dying, already has the “kingly power” to assure this dying criminal a place “today” with him “in the abode of the righteous dead.”
- With the preposition ἐν (en), the emphasis in “when you come in your kingdom” would be on “when you come,” which would refer to Jesus’ “return” (NET 23.42 note 100tc). See, e.g., 9.26; 12.40; 17.22, 24, 26, 30; 18.8; and 21.27.
- Codex Bezae replaces what we have in v. 42 with “Then he turned to the Lord and said to him, ‘Remember me in the day of your coming.’” Although Codex Bezae “has virtually no support in any other [manuscripts], it is evidence that at least some scribes in the 5th century interpreted the criminal’s request in v. 42 as referring to “the future aspect of the coming of Christ” (NET 23.42 note 100tc with my italics).
- “Although the reading … [with εἰς] has … the appearance of being a scribal correction (εἰς being considered more appropriate than ἐν with ἔλθῃς [elthēs, ‘come’]), a majority of the Committee preferred it as more consonant with Lukan theology (compare 24.26) than either of the other readings. The reading of most witnesses … [‘when you come in…’ [with ἐν (en, ‘in’)], and still more the reading of codex Bezae,… ‘in [ἐν] the day of your [second] coming,’ reflect a developed interest in the eschatological kingdom” (Metzger, Textual Commentary on the New Testament, 154).
David J. Lull, an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and Professor Emeritus of New Testament, Wartburg Theological Seminary, is a resident of Pilgrim Place in Claremont, CA. He also taught New Testament at Yale University Divinity School, was the Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature, and was the director of the Bible Translation and Utilization unit of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. His publications include Chalice Press Commentaries for Today on Romans (with John B. Cobb, Jr.) and 1 Corinthians (with William A. Beardslee); The Spirit in Galatia (reprinted by Wipf & Stock); and, with William A. Beardslee, John B. Cobb, Jr., and others, Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (reprinted by Wipf & Stock). In 2010, he published a major review essay covering more than a dozen books on “Paul and Empire” (Religious Studies Review 36/4: 251-62).