Reconciliation (in Colossians and Philemon)

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Of the several metaphors for the work of Christ in the NT, reconciliation carries the major part of the freight in Colossians. The vocabulary of this letter does not include ransom, justification, salvation, or propitiation. Redemption appears in 1:14, with emphasis on the Lord of the new kingdom, in whom there is redemption and forgiveness of sins.

References to reconciliation are relatively infrequent in the NT compared with the theological significance of the concept. The verb form, reconcile (katallasso*), occurs in Rom. 5:10 (twice); 1 Cor. 7:11; and 2 Cor. 5:18­-20 (thrice). The noun form, reconciliation (katallage*), occurs in Rom. 5:11; 11:15; and 2 Cor. 5:18­19 (twice). A verb form (apokatallasso*) with a prefix which likely adds intensity to the shorter noun, also means reconcile; it occurs in Eph. 2:16; Col. 1:20; and 1:22. (Diallassomai, with a different prefix coupled to the same base, is used in Matt. 5:24 in the sense of reconcile.)

These words do not occur in the Greek OT [Septuagint, p. 316]. The Hebrew OT has no equivalent for these Greek terms. They do appear in 2 Maccabees several times, revealing that Greek-­speaking Judaism thought of God being reconciled under certain conditions: "May [God] hear your prayers and be reconciled with you" (1:5, JB); "If, to punish and discipline us, our living Lord vents his wrath upon us, he will yet be reconciled with his own servants" (7:33, JB). In that period Jewish piety understood that a return to grace required human initiative. Josephus and the rabbis of the time used these Greek terms to mean reconcile, placate, or appease. The gospel brings a different perspective.

In the NT such terms refer to restoring a disrupted or broken relationship, both between God and humans and between humans. To reconcile is to bring alienated parties into council again. By removing the barriers and enmity between parties, oneness is restored. The KJV translates the noun (katallage) one time as atonement, in Rom. 5:11. In its primary sense of "at­-one­-ment," atonement is equivalent to reconciliation, but as theological terms, atone and atonement have taken on the connotation of making amends by paying a penalty, a concept not part of the biblical meaning of reconciliation.

Since reconciliation has to do with real relationships among people and primarily with God, the term is a literal reality as well as an image of a mystery beyond full human comprehension. "Colossians picks up this imagery of reconciliation as the foundation of the apostolic ministry. It presents the invitation to humanity to 'be reconciled' as extended to the entire cosmos" (Perkins: 82). Ralph P. Martin has also made a strong case that reconciliation is at the heart of Pauline theology (1981). Reconciliation is a relational concept rather than a legal one, such as justification. Although the term is not in the OT, the concept is at home in the covenant relationship of God and his peo­ple. If we put reconciliation near the top of the list of ways to describe what God has done in Christ, that is certainly in harmony with the overall tone of Colossians. (The conflict­-victory-­liberation motif is also prominent in Colossians, 1:13-­14; 2:8­-15, as well as in the NT as a whole.)

The meaning of reconciliation (as action and result) depends to a large extent on what the problem is perceived to be. Estrangement identifies the problem—but who is estranged from whom, and who needs to be reconciled with whom? Is the enmity that needs to be removed on God's side, the human side, or on both sides? The idea of an offended and angry deity who needs to be appeased is not part of the biblical revelation of God. Instead, human attitudes and actions of disobedience, rebellion, and hostility toward God cause the estrangement and stand in the way of restored relationships. In the biblical texts, God initiates the action and is said to do the reconciling: you . . . he has now reconciled (Col. 1:21­22); "in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself" (2 Cor. 5:19). However, we cannot conclude that humans are totally passive in the restoration, nor that nothing changes from God's side. God's wounded covenant love, expressed as wrath, prompts the self­giving love of Christ's death on behalf of sinners. (See "The Wrath of God," TBC for Col. 3:5­14, pp. 163­165.)

The most notable feature of reconciliation is that it includes being incorporated into a new community of peace. The invitation to accept reconciliation with God is at the same time an offer to participate in the new creation, the new order of human relationships. Reconciliation is personal but it is not limited to an individual relationship with God. Reconciled human relationships are an integral part of things being made as they should be in Christ.

Col. 1:20 says the goal of God's reconciling work through Christ is God's shalom for all of creation. What all this includes and how and when it is accomplished are big questions. Among the views held with respect to all things being reconciled are these (outlined by O'Brien, 1982:55­-57):

1. Only humans and angels are in mind here since persons, not things, are reconciled.

2. Only humans are included.

3. Only the cosmic powers are included.

4. All that has been disturbed and disrupted is what is returned to order.

5. Of major concern is not who or what is reconciled, but who is the reconciler.

6. All is fully inclusive, although not necessarily that all persons will gladly accept Christ's lordship.

Some of these seem too limiting to be in accord with the context. On the other hand, if we accept an inclusive meaning, then the Pauline texts seem to be in tension with passages such as Matt. 12:31­-32; Heb. 10:26-­27; and Rev. 21:27; 22:14-­15. Reasoned explanations of what God can or cannot do would seem to move beyond what humans can know. John Driver's words summarize what reconciliation means in the Bible:

Reconciliation refers to more than the mere removal of a person's guilt. As we have seen, it is called the making of peace (Eph. 2:14­17; Col. 1:20; cf. Rom. 5:1), a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), and the creation of a new humanity (Eph. 2:10, 15). In reconciling humankind to himself, God has created a new order of human relationships. In Col. 1:20 reconciling and making peace are really parallel concepts. This offers us a valuable clue to understanding the biblical view of reconciliation. The goal of Christ's reconciling work is the establishment of God's shalom intentions for people. This peace leaves no part of our common life untouched by God's grace, and it will finally transcend the limitations of our historical existence in its ultimate fulfillment. (1986:186)

Ernest D. Martin