This continues my translation of the Letter to Colossians, with commentary.
COLOSSIANS 1 v21ff
You also, who once made yourselves strangers with hostile attitudes and wrong behaviour, he has now brought back into relationship with himself, in his flesh and blood body through his death, to place you beside him, select, faultless and irreproachable; -provided you abide firmly grounded in the faith, and do not move away from the hope of the joyful news which you heard, which has been announced in all creation under heaven, and of which I,Paul, have become a servant.
Now I celebrate what I have suffered for you, and fill out what falls short of Messiah’s afflictions in my flesh and blood, for the sake of his body, which is the Assembly. I have become a minister of it, in the form of the divine household management given to me for you, that of fulfilling God’s declaration – the mystery hidden for ages and generations now shown openly to his holy men and women. God decided to make known to them the splendid wealth of this mystery, among the gentiles, namely: Messiah in you, the hope of splendour.
We announce him by chiding everybody and teaching everybody, using every form of wisdom, so that we can display every person as complete in Messiah. To this end I too am labouring, as I fight using his energy which works powerfully in me.
This is a crucial and difficult passage, partly again due to the ambiguity of some Greek participles, but also to the author’s brevity when making important theological claims. The second sentence shows both difficulties. Firstly, is the phrase the “afflictions of Messiah” attached simply to “what falls short” – which would signal a denial that His afflictions are sufficient to rescue humanity- or to “what falls short in my flesh and blood” – which signals that “Paul” has shared some of Messiah’s affliction and is ready to suffer more? I’ve gone for the latter, but in any case, secondly, what does it mean, to share the afflictions of Messiah? I can guess, but the author gives me no help.
The passage begins by pointing to the spiritual condition of gentiles prior to faith. I have translated a passive participle as reflexive which I think is justifiable, “who once made yourselves strangers” meaning they did not worship the God of Israel, and so fell into wrong or evil behaviour. The author’s easy assumption about their beliefs and particularly their actions might have raised a few eyebrows amongst his readers. It was an established piece of Jewish prejudice that Gentiles were idolatrous sinners, and some Gentiles may have found it irritating. The more honest statement would have been that Gentiles were kept at a distance by most Jews and even by some followers of Jesus. I have attributed this letter to a disciple of St. Paul, who himself had made the point that the ethical behaviour of some Gentiles meant that they were their own Torah.
In any case the author proceeds to tell them that Jesus has brought them back into relationship with himself – as a teller reconciles two amounts of money- in his “sarx” that is, his flesh and blood body, through death. He does not explain at this point how this happens, but rather concentrates on the effect of it: the sinful idolaters, united with Jesus, become select, faultless and irreproachable, that is, they share Jesus’ perfection as one who has offered himself to God. But there is a condition, they must abide in faith or trust in God which is further defined as “the hope of the joyful news you heard.” The hope is that of sharing Jesus’ life with God in the company of the members of the Assembly, (The translation “church” is mistaken.) The claim that the joyful news has been proclaimed to “in all creation” is a little odd. Of course it means, “to all people” but perhaps he is perhaps including the earthly powers, the superhuman forces of the world, and perhaps also, the blameless creatures. The joyful news is ecumenical, for the whole “oekumene” the inhabited world.
The Disciple, writing in Paul’s name, refers to his well-known imprisonment and other sufferings, only to insist, as Paul often did, that he celebrates them, as they have contributed to the faith of his converts. Here however Paul’s life is depicted as marked by sharing as fully as he can, the sufferings of Jesus. This is cause for celebration because, as Paul said, “if we share his sufferings we shall also share his splendour. Maybe this is true, but should it ever be spoken of? Does it not communicate a degree of self-satisfaction?
My translation notes that Paul’s vocation is, literally, the household management of the assemblies of Jesus. This is a winsome way of describing his role. But it has a special distinction, that of fulfilling or effecting an announcement of God, probably the one given to Abraham that in his descendants all people would be blessed. Israel is only a stage in God’s creation of the world; now a new stage has begun, the extension of God’s rule to all people. This is the “mystery hidden for ages”, Israel’s Messiah is God’s mission to the Gentiles! This is fittingly written in Paul’s name, as perhaps Paul was the first person to believe it.
The author wants to define the mystery more precisely for the Colossians; it is: Messiah in you, the hope of splendour. Jesus Messiah has entered their communal and personal lives, as the hope of splendour here and hereafter. This relationship which is theirs in Colossae through their trust in Jesus Messiah, is a source of astonishment to Israel and all the world, a mystery now openly revealed.
Paul had written of people growing into to “the stature of Messiah”. His Disciple set this as the aim of Paul’s mission; all believers can become complete in Messiah, as children of God. But he also knew that Paul himself was still on the same journey and that even with God’s help, it wasn’t easy.