Colossians 2 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Christ Is God Within History

The first formulation of Christ's lordship claims that Christ embodied all the fullness of the Deity and that he did so in bodily form. Clearly, Paul intends to challenge any requirement that Christians go through other "spiritual powers" to get to the exalted Christ. Our access to the exalted Christ in heaven is immediate and direct, and through him we have the attentive ear of God Almighty (see Heb 4:14-16). If we are "in him," we belong to One who is fully God and require nothing else.

The word Paul uses for God (theotes), translated "Deity," is distinguished from another word (theiotes) used often by ancient philosophers when referring to something or someone "divine." The distinction is important for understanding Paul's Christology. Christ is not "divine" in the sense that we speak of superb food as "simply divine" or of virtuous individuals as "godly." Christ is much more than a superb person of godly virtue. Paul asserts that Christ Jesus is God in bodily form.

We may well presume that Paul's point underscores a practical theology: by taking on human form in the person of Jesus from Nazareth, God, who is neither human nor limited by history, has become a human participant in world history. Through the person of Jesus, God is able to disclose more perfectly and intelligibly the Creator's kind intentions for all things.

Paul expands the traditional formulation (1:19) by adding the adjective bodily form to underscore Jesus' humanity as the definitive historical and personal repository of divine revelation. The Messiah is neither a theological idea nor the subject of Christian proclamation; he is the historical Jesus of Nazareth in whose personhood the truth and glory of God are fully embodied. Not only is Paul's epistemology (source of knowledge) christological, but his anthropology (view of human existence) is christological as well: Christ discloses God's perfect and good intentions for every human being. Thus, in him God's salvation-creating grace is at work to bring about ideal humanity in all who believe on him. A philosophy that is Christless is also hopeless, since without Christ a new humanity is a real impossibility.

Because I do not locate the teaching of Paul's Colossian opponents within early Christian or Jewish Gnosticism, I am inclined to disagree with modern efforts to define fullness in philosophical (see Lohse 1971:100) and Gnostic (see Houlden 1977:190) ways. More likely, Paul's point is Jewish and theological. Fullness in the Old Testament speaks of God's presence--for example, when the prophets say that God's "glory" or presence "fills up the earth" (see Is 6:3). In this sense Jesus is the presence of God within history. The prophets sometimes locate God's glorious presence in the holy city of Jerusalem or in its temple's sacred "holy of holies." If Paul's use of fullness follows the word's Old Testament use, as I suspect it does, then he may well be asserting that the very presence of God is posited in the body of Jesus, which is God's temple (Jn 2:19; Mk 14:58). Additionally, I suspect that Paul uses fullness quantitatively: that is, all of God is "fully" present in Christ Jesus. In no other person at no other time in the course of human history are God's truth and empowering grace so completely embodied and so easily recognized as in the Lord's life and work.

Yet how are we to understand the present tense of the verb lives? That is, how does the exalted Lord Christ continue to embody deity? Quite literally, Paul may be suggesting that the humanity of the historical Jesus continues to define his posthistorical, heavenly existence. While this is a possible meaning, Paul's point seems to me more metaphorical. The idiom of this passage is clearly confessional and doxological, recalling his earlier poetic statement about Christ (1:19). In this less literal sense, the historical results of God's triumph in Christ "continue on" in the community of believers. In support of this interpretation, Harris rightly argues that the verb is a "timeless present tense" and refers to the permanent residence of deity in the living Lord (1991:98). Thus, while the incarnation is a historical event, limited by the space and time of Jesus' life and messianic mission, its consequences are embodied by those who "live on" in him. Christ lives, therefore we live.

The church's ongoing experience of Christ's exaltation is envisioned in the first half of verse 10, where Paul underscores the practical importance of God's incarnation in the person of Jesus Christ. What difference does the incarnation make to the believer's life, since the community has been given fullness in Christ (see Eph 1:22-23)? The missiological value of Paul's statement is self-evident and crucial to his argument: in the absence of the historical Jesus, the church is now the personal presence of God within history and therefore responsible for mediating his revelation and redemption to the world.

Yet here Paul also links the fullness of God with the newness of life; thus, as we become alive through faith in him, our humanity is made more complete. By the work of grace, every good intention of the Creator for the creature is realized in Christ.

The deity of Christ is a nonnegotiable article of Christian orthodoxy; to deny it is to reject what stands at the core of our faith. But to confess this article of faith without then providing an explanation of what it means or why it is essential for Christian nurture is to exchange the Colossian sophistry for another. And to confess the full humanity of Jesus without really believing it is simply dishonest. We must never suppose that the mere verbal confession of truth is what counts; our confessions of faith must be fleshed out consistently and responsibly in our lives (see Jas 2:18-20). Paul's brief commentary on Christ's incarnation, although cast in the idiom of Colossian Christianity and without the critical awareness formed by the church's subsequent debate, nevertheless provides us with a biblical model to guide our thinking about Christ's deity.

Paul emphasizes two points in claiming that Jesus Christ is God incarnate. First, Paul asserts that the incarnation has to do with the humanity of Jesus: he is the "Deity bodily." I do not think that Paul uses the phrase ontologically, as a reference to Jesus' divine nature. Rather, in response to the mystical and world-denying tendencies of the Colossian heresy, he uses it to demystify and "rehistoricize" Jesus. Jesus is not only the risen and exalted Lord Christ; he is the Jesus of history, whose bodily death (1:22), bodily resurrection (2:11-12; 1 Cor. 15:35-49) and bodily exaltation (3:1) have real importance for real people. Paul knew that only by considering the Jesus of history can believers truly comprehend God's true and good intentions for our own life and work. Christianity is not a religion of theological or christological abstractions; it is, in Wesley's words, a "practical divinity."

Unfortunately, many interpreters miss Paul's emphasis on Jesus' humanity and suppose that the incarnation has mostly to do with Jesus' divine nature; his humanity is collapsed into his deity, so that he really isn't human after all. In this way we fall prey to the old docetic heresy: Jesus' messianic ministry gives the appearance of humanity but is actually effective for our salvation only because he is God and not really human. Following this conviction, his perfect love for others and sinless devotion to God are viewed as somehow inevitable; being God, he could do nothing but love God and God's creatures perfectly. Further, his atoning death as a blemish-free sacrifice for sin is viewed as the result of his deity rather than his absolute and requisite obedience to God. These docetic conclusions make Easter not so much God's vindication of Jesus' servanthood as the verification of his divine nature.

Surely this perspective on the incarnation is wrong-headed. It fails to make sense of the Bible's four authorized biographies of Jesus, each of which portrays him as God's obedient servant-Son. Docetism also makes irrelevant Jesus' essential demand for us to follow him, to be his disciples. How can humans follow after someone who isn't human? Further, to embrace Christ's deity at the expense of his humanity is to misplace God's work for Christ's. When Christ is no longer Christ, the fundamental and compelling importance of Christianity's messianic roots are forever lost. With Peter (Mk 8:29, par.) and Martha (Jn 11:27), we first of all confess Jesus as Messiah, whose death and resurrection inaugurated the new age of God's salvation. Moreover, we must always distinguish between God and God's Messiah in the work of salvation. In interpreting Scripture we must remember that both Jesus' self-understanding and Paul's Christology were God-centered: both were christological monotheists whose central belief was that God saves humanity from the destructive results of sin through and because of the results of Christ's life, death and resurrection.

Even here in Colossians, with its keen emphasis on Christ's preexistence and cosmic lordship (1:15-20), Paul sees the pattern of salvation as centered in God's saving grace. It is God who rescues us from darkness and forgives our sins (1:13-14), and it is God who is reconciled with us in Christ (1:21-22). The importance of Christ for Paul is his relationship to God as the Messiah: by his obedience to God, "even to death on a cross," God's promise of salvation has been fulfilled for all those who believe.

Second, Paul insists that the incarnation has to do with the covenantal nature of God's salvation. With the possible exception of Philippians 2:6-8, Paul's conviction that God has taken human form in the man Christ Jesus does not lead him into any profound theological reflection on the nature of the relationship between preexistent Christ and God. Paul is not as preoccupied as we are with how the three members of the Holy Trinity are related to one another. His interest in relationships is far more practical; he explores how the members of the heavenly Trinity are related to the earthly church and how they covenant together to bring about the church's salvation within history. In fact, here the confession that the bodily (and not preexistent) Lord Christ is the fullness of God naturally implies that people found in Christ by faith also participate in the fullness of God's purposes embodied in Christ (compare Eph 1:22-23; 4:13). By virtue of being in Christ by faith and with him for the outworking of God's salvation, the church is re-created by God's grace and brought into conformity with the Creator God's good intentions for human life.

Thus, to confess that God was in Christ Jesus bodily is to claim that God continues to be in the community covenanted together in Christ Jesus. For Paul, the church is the continuing and living body of Christ, in which the fullness of God now dwells. This practical orientation toward the incarnation, which moves the debate from the nature of Christ's being to the source of the church's salvation, challenges the sophistry in both Colosse and today's church.

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