Colossians 1:15-23

This was my senior project for college. I omitted my Master Text Summary and Homiletical Outline. Aside from that, this is pretty much what I spent my last semester in college doing. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it… wait… I hope you enjoy reading it exponentially more than I enjoyed writing it!

Colossians 1:15-23

Background Information

In verse 1 of chapter 1 of Colossians, Paul is mentioned, along with Timothy, as being associated with the book. Many scholars today argue whether Paul really wrote Colossians (Witherington 1), whether it might have been a close disciple to Paul (Dunn 36), or whether it might have even been a disciple of Paul writing with a Pauline influence (Dunn 35). This is such a debated topic because of the progression of Pauline thought, the different use of vocabulary in Colossians (and Ephesians) from the rest of Paul’s writings, and the different rhetorical style in which Colossians is written. Oftentimes, Philemon is paired with Colossians when looking at authorship because both mention Paul and Timothy and both are written to people in Colossae (Dunn 37).

Dunn believes that Paul was the author of Philemon, but merely gave his stamp of approval to the true writer of Colossians, who he thinks is Timothy (38). Witherington, however, seems to be hesitant to this notion and thinks that Paul is the sole writer. Witherington states that there is a style change not because of a different author, but probably because of the change of demographic which Paul is writing to. Because of this locative change, Witherington concludes that Paul is writing in an Asiatic rhetoric in Colossians (and Philemon and Ephesians), a different rhetoric from that of his other writings (100-102).

Witherington does, however, give leeway to Dunn’s hypothesis and says that Timothy could have co-authored these late works, or that he was at least the scribe of them. This is because of Paul’s statement in Colossians 4:18 where he states he is “writing in his own hand.” Witherington states: “In fact, it may not be Paul himself that should be praised for the rhetorically impressive style of these documents. Perhaps not Paul but Timothy knew this style, having grown up near Asia, and Paul was content to have him compose these documents accordingly to make them more nearly words on target” (25). With all facts in consideration, I seem to agree more with Dunn that Timothy was the writer of Colossians, which explains the style change and the slightly more progressive ideology, but allowing for the Pauline thought to still shine through. Though the burden of proof rests more on the heads of those with this notion (Witherington 100), it seems to fill in more gaps than does the idea of Paul being the author.

There is also tension in the date with which Colossians is written. If Pauline, Colossians can either be dated near the date of Philemon in the mid-50’s prior to 2 Corinthians and Romans which is during Paul’s Ephesian prison experience (Dunn 40), or dated in the early 60’s during Paul’s house arrest in Rome (Witherington 19). Both Dunn and Witherington agree that it is more likely that Colossians was written during Paul’s house arrest in Rome, Dunn giving it a 10% edge (in his opinion) to that of the earlier date in the mid-50’s. This also makes Colossians the last of the Pauline letters – which is what’s held traditionally (Dunn 40-41). There seems to be no concrete evidence leaning to one date over the other, and though tradition does not equal proof, it does place the burden of proof on those with the opposing claim. Thus, I agree with Dunn and Witherington that Colossians should be dated to Paul’s house imprisonment in Rome in the early-60’s.
By looking at Colossians 2:1, it can be further deduced that Paul had never been to Colossae personally. Paul gives credit to Epaphras for ministering the gospel to the people (Col 1:6-7, Dunn 22). Geographically, Colossae is located in the southern part of the Roman province of Asia, being a part of the Lycus valley. In A.D. 61-62, around when the letter of Colossians was written, there was an earthquake that laid the city of Colossae in ruins (Dunn 23). But since Paul and Timothy had never been to Colossae, it makes sense as to why they aren’t more personal when talking about this instance, if even it had occurred before Colossians was written.

“A significant feature of the Lycus valley cities, including presumably Colossae, was the presence of a substantial Jewish minority,” states Dunn (21). And Witherington echo’s this idea of Paul and Timothy writing concerning Jewish practices when he states that: “what Paul [and Timothy are] addressing is recognizably Jewish, with concern for circumcision (2:11–13; 3:11), observance of the Sabbath (2:16), and food rules (2:16, 21)” (109). Both Dunn and Witherington are in agreement that Colossians was written concerning the Jewish influence in the Lycus valley, though they disagree to the severity. Regardless of influence, it is true that there was Jewish false teaching that was influencing the church (Dunn 23). This seems to be why Paul and Timothy write such a long section regarding Christology in Colossians 1:15-23 (Witherington 111).

Colossians 1:15-20 is what Witherington calls the narratio. This section has an early Christian hymn in it, centering on the divinity and sovereignty of Christ. The narratio is followed by 1:21-23 which he calls the propositio or the “thesis statement.” The propositio lays out the foundational argument/pronouncement which will be discussed for the rest of the book (Witherington 20,138). Dunn, however, wraps 1:3-23 in an extended version of thanksgiving – having 1:15-20 being a “hymn of praise” and the following in vv. 21-23 to be the intended response of reconciliation (41). I agree more with Dunn, that this is the developing introduction of thanksgiving, preparing the reader for the rest of the letter that is to come.

“Most directly, 1:15–20 is an explanation of the directly preceding verses (1:13b–14): ‘the son of his love, in whom we have the redemption, the forgiveness of sins’” (Beale 851). The author does a good job from flowing from one topic to another. 1:15-23 lays the foundation of what the author wants to get across for the rest of the letter; that Christ is first and foremost (Withertington 128). As Ben Witherington III puts it, “The thesis statement in 1:21–23 thus begins to apply lessons learned from the Christ hymn which will be fleshed out at length in 1:24–4:1” (138).

Textual Criticism

Colossians 1:15-23 has two different textual variants included in the Greek New Testament of the United Bible Society. Both are rated with the letter C, which “indicates that the Committee had difficulty deciding which variant to place in the text.” One of them is also in brackets indicating that “the enclosed word, words, or parts of words may be regarded as part of the text, but that in the present state of New Testament textual scholarship this cannot be taken completely certain” (Aland 2-3). These words are διʼ αὐτοῦ (included in brackets) in verse 20 and ἀποκατήλλαξεν in verse 22.

In doing the preliminary work for these two texts, the manuscripts were pretty split as to whether διʼ αὐτοῦ (v 20) is omitted or not in the text. Bruce Metzger states: “In order to represent the two points of view it was decided to retain the words in the text, enclosed within square brackets” (Metzger 554). Not only so, but this phrase adds no effect to the passage. Theologically – the passage would be translated with roughly the same meaning. For this reason, I will not continue with this phrase. However, if more time were available, further development of textual criticism is preferred.

When looking at verse 22, the possible readings are 1) ἀποκατήλλαξεν, 2) ἀπήλλαξεν, 3) ἀποκατήλλακται, 4) ἀποκατηλλάγητε, and 5) ἀποκαταλλαγέντες. These grammatical variants are important because it is the same verb used with a different person, number, and voice. While variants 1) and 2) are 3rd person singular with an active voice, variant 4) and variant 5) are in the passive voice – variant 5) being a participle. Arndt does not recognize variant 3) as an alternative reading of the verse. This is a misspelling and will be ignored as a possible word (Arndt 112).

Textual Criticism Chart

By looking at the dates of the individual MSS, variants 1), 4), and 5) all have MSS and early church fathers that support their readings. However, variant 5) has a poor geographical distribution and can be assumed to be added in as a misspelling or as a way to add meaning to the text. Variant 1) and 4) both have relatively early manuscripts supporting their reading. Variant 1), “he reconciled” Metzger says, “is well supported… and provides acceptable sense” (554). He then goes on to say: “On the other hand, however, if this were the original reading, it is exceedingly difficult to explain why other readings should have arisen” (554-555). Variant 4), “you were reconciled,” seems to make more sense with the change of subject, “ὑμᾶς” occurring in verse 21. With this anacoluthon Metzger says that, “only ἀποκατηλλάγητε… can account for the rise of the other readings as more or less successful attempts to mend the syntax of the sentence.”
With this said, it does seem to note that variant 1) would also appear to be the harder reading, having the change in subject in the middle of the paragraph. This however, also makes the reading less harmonious. Several words have to be added into variant 1) for there to be clarity as to who is reconciling, in whose body there is reconciliation, and who is considered to be reconciled by this act.

As far as this word is used in other Pauline epistles, this passage is one of only a few where the verb ἀποκαταλλάσσω is used (Arndt 112). Metzger stated that a majority of the Committee felt since external testimony seemed to agree more with variant 1), that the Committee therefore chose variant 1) as the reading. Metzger also stated that the passive voice of variant 4) would be harsh of Paul and unlike something that he would normally use (555).
With internal evidence being fairly equal, and with external evidence not weighing enough (in my opinion) to fall on either side, with all the problems that face variant 1) syntactically, variant 4), ἀποκατηλλάγητε, seems to be the more likely reading.

Personal Translation

1:15 He is the image of the invisible God,
The firstborn over all creation,
1:16 For in him all things were created
In the heavens and upon the earth,
The visible and the invisible,
Whether thrones, whether dominions,
Whether rulers, whether powers;
All things were created through him and for him;
1:17 And he himself is before all things
And in him all things hold together,
1:18 And he is the head over the body, which is the church;
He is the beginning,
The firstborn from the dead,
That in everything he himself may be first,
1:19 For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell
1:20 And through him to reconcile all things to himself,
Making peace through the blood of his cross,
[Through him] Whether the things on the earth, whether the things in the heavens.
1:21 And you once were alienated and enemies to (your) minds by evil works,
1:22 But now you were reconciled by his fleshly body, through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach before him,
1:23 If indeed you remain in the faith, being established and firm, and not being shifted away from the hope which is the Good News that you heard, of which is being preached in all creation under the heavens, of which I, Paul, became a servant.


a. Syntactical Analysis:
Problem: In verse one, is the use of the genitive in the phrase “πάσης κτίσεως” reference, partitive or subordination?
Solution: Wallace uses this phrase in his textbook as an example of both genitive of reference (128) and genitive of subordination (104). Wallace rules out this phrase being a partitive genitive for several reasons. Dunn also states in agreement and elaborates that this is the phrase through which the popular Arian doctrine developed (89). “If this [phrase] were partitive, the idea would be that Christ was part of creation, i.e., a created being. But Paul makes it clear throughout this epistle that Jesus Christ is the supreme Creator…” Context alone shows that Paul throughout the epistle is correcting the idea of an improper Christology (stated above) within Colossae (Wallace 128).

Wallace states that this is most likely a genitive of subordination (128). Lukaszewski translated the phrase as a genitive of subordination as well in the “Lexham Syntactical Greek New Testament” (524). However, genitive of subordination is usually only involved where the head noun implies some rule or authority (Wallace 103). A lexical analysis of πρωτότοκος (see below) will give more clarity as to whether it does give an idea of rule or authority. Wallace ends by saying that, “although most examples of subordination involve a verbal head noun, not all do” (104). Genitive of reference wouldn’t change the overall meaning of the text besides adding unneeded ambiguity, and with the overall context of Colossians focused on Christology and the deity of Christ; genitive of subordination appears to be the best choice.

Problem: Is “ἐν αὐτῷ” in v. 16 a dative of means or of sphere?
Solution: Interpretations are split as to whether this is a dative of means or a dative of sphere. Dative of means, “is used to indicate the means or instrument by which the verbal action is accomplished” (Wallace 162). Wallace defines the dative of sphere as such: “The dative substantive indicates the sphere or realm in which the word to which it is related takes place or exists” (153).

O’Brien thinks that this is a dative of sphere, and I agree with him for good reason. There are other places in this passage where the author uses διʼ αὐτοῦ to refer to Christ’s instrumental work as Creator. Though Paul or Timothy could be using this as a literary device, with context in mind, it seems as though they were intending something greater than mere means. A dative of sphere points that: “God’s creation… takes place ‘in Christ’ and not apart from him” (O’Brien 45). This phrase points not to Christ being the Creator (something evident in context), but points more specifically that nothing takes place apart from him. Dative of sphere should be the proper interpretation.

b. Lexical/Theological Analysis:

1. πρωτότοκος is used twice in this passage, once in verse 15 and also in verse 18. The translation of this word is “firstborn,” and in both instances it is used in the nominative case. The Dictionary of the New Testament states the rarity of this word – in that it is not used prior to the Septuagint (Kittel 871). O’Brien states further that: “The term ‘firstborn’ was frequently used in the LXX (130 times)… to indicate temporal priority and sovereignty of rank” (44).
Arndt states that the term “firstborn” in this passage has a “special status” to it (Arndt 894). Christ is seen as the firstborn of creation and of humanity in that he raised from the dead.

In the New Testament whenever this word is used in the singular case it is always in reference to Christ. In Romans 8:29, 1Corinthians 15:20, Acts 26:23, and Revelation 1:5, “firstborn” is used to give priority of time, not supremacy. In this passage however, the majority of commentators agree that “firstborn” is intending supremacy (O’Brien 44). Kittel agrees that, “the idea of even a figurative birth or begetting is no longer a clear element in πρωτότοκος in these passages” (874). Witherington states: “It is probable that prōtotokos indicates Christ’s relationship to creation while eikōn indicates his relationship to God the Father” (134).

In texts outside of the New Testament Dunn states: “As the sequence of parallels with motifs characteristically used of Jewish Wisdom in these verses will confirm, the writer here is taking over language used of divine Wisdom and reusing it to express the significance of Christ, if not, indeed, taking over a pre-Christian hymn to Wisdom” (89). Christ is the antitype of the wisdom in the Old Testament that was an essential agent with God the Father in creation. Though the word “wisdom” isn’t used at all in Colossians 1, its undertones stick out like a thorn. With this Graeme Goldsworthy states that “the order established by God in creation is that which can make for order in the lives of God’s people” (189). Christ being the “firstborn” points to the idea that he was the creating agent of Wisdom with God the Father that crafted the earth and all that is in it.

The term for “firstborn” in verse 15 also has theological ramifications when looking at its idea of supremacy. If Christ was the firstborn over creation, then this means that the gospel (the life and death of Christ) was not an afterthought of God, but that God’s plan from the beginning of creation was to point to the Christ and his salvation. This has implications that cover the whole duration of salvation history – that all things were created “in him, for him, and through him” (Goldsworthy 204).

2. πλήρωμα is used in verse 19. It is translated to be “fullness” and is in the nominative case. Arndt defines it more specifically in Colossians 1:19 as, “the state of being full” (830). In the LXX, πλήρωμα is always translated to mean spatial fullness (Kittel 299). O’Brien goes on to explain that it is always with an active meaning in the Old Testament: the sea and its fullness, the earth and everything in it, and the world with all it contains (52). The word has a wide range of meanings in the New Testament, and, “Because of its wealth of meaning Paul is relatively fond of the term” (Kittel 302).
πλήρωμα is used one other time in Colossians, in 2:9 which states: “For in him the fullness of deity dwells bodily” (ESV). In Colossians “fullness” has the undertones of both the attributes of God and the fullness of God being pleased to reside in the personified Temple – Christ. O’Brien elaborates that this word often coincides with God and His dwelling place. Beale agrees when he says that this passage seems to have references to Psalm 67 in the LXX and especially the targumic version (855). Paul and Timothy were writing to the Colossians that Christ has become the new Temple. “He is the one mediator between God and the world of mankind… God in all his divine essence and power had taken up residence in Christ” (O’Brien 152-153).

The Dictionary of the New Testament adds that the full meaning of “fullness” ultimately entails completeness. “The word πλήρωμα emphasizes the fact that the divine fullness of love and power acts and rules in all its perfection through Christ. The choice of the word is thus easy to understand. It is selected because it suggests completeness” (303). The completeness of God was pleased to reside in Christ.

Theologically, this passage is rather weighty. In one instance, it has further implications to Christ’s deity, shrugging off Gnostic notions and pointing to Christ inhabiting the “fullness” of God (O’Brien 52). In another possible definition of meaning, if “fullness” does point to the presence of God residing in Christ rather than the Temple, then there are theological and eschatological nuances that also need to be addressed. From a biblical theological perspective, if Jesus replaces the Temple then this makes perfect sense as to why there will be no Temple in Revelation 21:22. Where the people of God once found their meaning and purpose and life centered around the Temple where the presence resided, now the people of God, the church, must center their lives around Christ. He is the Temple – where the “fullness” of God dwells.

c. Further Theological Analysis:
Colossians itself shows the progression of Pauline thought. Even though Timothy most likely wrote the letter, it has definite Pauline influence. Dunn notes that the Christology is becoming more developed in Colossians than it ever had been before. He also notes that there is a realized eschatology here that is far more developed than Paul’s earlier writings, such as Romans. And rhetorically, Timothy and Paul add in a set of “household rules” in here only in comparison to that of Ephesians (Dunn 36). This shows definite progression of Pauline thought since that of Galatians, also taking note to the tone change in which he is correcting the false teachers he addresses in Colossians (Witherington 107).

How is ecclesiology of Pauline thought more developed in Colossians? In verse 18a, it states, “And he is the head over the body, which is the church” (translation mine). In Paul’s earlier letters, the word for “church,” ἐκκλησία (though in verse 18 it’s used in the genitive) was used to refer to the local assembly of believers. In Colossians and Ephesians, however, ἐκκλησία seems to be used to refer to the universal church around the world (O’Brien 59-60). Not only so, but this universal church seems not to be a physical one, but seems to be moving more in to the realm of the metaphysical. O’Brien goes on to say that, “each of the various local churches are manifestations of that heavenly church…” (61).

In Colossians 1:15-23, reconciliation is a huge theme of this passage, and one with theological implications. The word used for “reconciliation” here is ἀποκαταλλάσσω. It only occurs in Colossians 1 verses 20 and 22, and once in Ephesians. “Since it is never found prior to Paul, it is perhaps coined by him” (Kittel 258). The idea of reconciliation here is not just that the agent has been reconciled, but also that there are eschatological nuances. Reconciliation has been acted on by God, and is waiting for the time when it can come to completion at the eschaton (Dunn 103). This is reconciliation that has been promised since the Fall (Genesis 3).

“Underlying all of this is both the righteous and holy character of God on the one hand, and the loving character of God providing a substitute so that we need not endure the punishment for sin” (Witherington 136). Ultimately, reconciliation points not only to the fact that God needed to reconcile his relationship with man, but it also points to Christ as the means to which reconciliation is brought forth. And because Christ reconciled “all things,” we in turn know that we are reconciled (Colossians 1:22). “The vision is vast. The claim is mind-blowing. It says much for the faith of these first Christians that they should see in Christ’s death and resurrection quite literally the key to resolving the disharmonies of nature and the inhumanities of humankind, that the character of God’s creation and God’s concern for the universe in its fullest expression could be so caught and encapsulated for them in the cross of Christ” (Dunn 104).


The key center for Colossians 1:15-23 is verse 20a: “And through him to reconcile all things to himself, making peace through the blood of his cross” (translation mine). Christ, the subject for the first half of this passage, is the agent through which reconciliation is offered. He is worthy of praise, because he is Lord (vv 15-20). And because he reconciled all things to himself the Colossians in turn have reconciliation with God (v 22).

Verse 15 lays down the foundation: that Christ was at Creation with God. He wasn’t a created being, but he was the personified Wisdom that worked with God the Father in creating the heavens and the earth ex nihilo (v 15, see above). This lays out his sovereignty over all creation further pointing out his divinity. Everything finds its purpose in Christ (v 16) and is contingent to him (v 17). He held the fullness of the deity (v 19).

Christ also is the head over the church, both locally and the invisible church universally (v 18a, see above). Despite different locations and beliefs and nationalities, all communities of believers can come together in unison and worship Christ – the head. The hymn in 15-20 is clearly Christocentric. O’Brien says that Paul is talking about Christ in a way which no one had ever previously talked about anyone. “Christ is unique, for he is the ultimate goal of all creation” (62). All things in vv 15-20 focus on who Christ is, and what he has done on behalf of the Colossian believers.

And in verse 20, Paul and Timothy switch to what Christ has done. Through him, all things are reconciled. This is an act that has “now/not yet” tones to it. All things are reconciled (including the Colossian believers, v 22), but are waiting for a future eschatological fulfillment in the eschaton – inaugurated reconciliation (O’Brien 53). Dunn states: “The implication is that the purpose, means, and manner of (final) reconciliation have already been expressed by God, not that the reconciliation is already complete” (103). Though this is huge, the fact that the author of Colossians writes that “all things” are reconciled gives the readers hope that all things are being mended together by Christ’s atoning work. This points to Christ’s propitiation on the cross, and is a message of his lordship and his sacrifice (see above).

Verse 21 makes a shift in subject, switching from the subject of Christ, to now the believing people of Colossae. Paul starts by making a statement of their former life before they knew Christ stating: “and you once were alienated…” (translation mine). O’Brien says that there is an idea of a general to specific: that “and enemies to your minds” and “evil works” if a further explanation of how they were alienated (66). This again points to their hopelessness of where they once were before they knew Christ.

“Having painted a grim picture of the Colossians’ pre-Christian and pagan past Paul proceeds to describe the turning point when God acted mightily on their behalf…” (O’Brien 67). In verse 22, Paul and Timothy make a switch to the current state of the Colossians, that they were “reconciled by his fleshly body” (translation mine). This points to the physical body of Christ, and that his body was the means by which they received reconciliation (O’Brien 68).

“The divine act of reconciliation had two phases: the means (‘in the body of his flesh through death’) and the objective (‘to present you holy …’)” (Dunn 109). Not only was the church reconciled to Christ, but the infinitive (παραστῆσαι) is used to connote purpose. They were reconciled in order to be presented holy before God (Dunn 109). This has legal tones to it – that the people who were once in wrong standing with God should be “irreproachable” when they approach him at the eschaton (O’Brien 68-69).

“Paul counters this by suggesting that believers need to continue to live in hope, standing firm on the foundation of the faith they already have assented to and believe in” (Witherington 141). Paul ends this section in verse 23 when he presents a conditional sentence warning them not to shift away from the hope that the Good News presents (O’Brien 69). He has laid out an argument that the Gospel that he presented is the accurate one. This is combating any of the false teaching that was going around in Colossae (Witherington 141, also see above). Paul ends this discourse by saying that this is the true Good News which he himself is a minister of (v 23). He is saying that if anyone else is preaching a gospel other than what he is then it is lacking and not the true Gospel (Witherington 141).

This passage is pointing to who Christ is, what he did, and then has application for the Colossian believers. This is all centered on the theme and is focused-in on the reconciliation brought forth by Christ. The believers in Colossae are reconciled through him, and all things can be reconciled through him because he truly is the Lord.

Works Cited

Aland, Kurt, Matthew Black, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce M. Metzger, Maurice. Robinson and Allen Wikgren. The Greek New Testament, Fourth Revised Edition (With Morphology). Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993; 2006.

Arndt, William, Frederick W. Danker and Walter Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Beale, G. K. and D. A. Carson. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007.

Dunn, James D. G. The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: William B. Eerdmans Publishing; Paternoster Press, 1996.

Goldsworthy, Graeme. Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001.

Lukaszewski, Albert L. and Mark Dubis. The Lexham Syntactic Greek New Testament. Logos Bible Software, 2009.

Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. 2nd ed. New York: United Bible Societies, 1994.

O’Brien, Peter T. Word Biblical Commentary: Vol. 44. Waco, TX: Word Books Publisher. 1982

Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Gerhard Friedrich. electronic ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964-.

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics – Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Zondervan Publishing House and Galaxie Software, 1999.

Witherington, Ben, III. The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians : A Socio Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007.