Locate the Passage
1:21-23 is an amplification of the reconciling work of the Son described in 1:20. 1:15-2:5 serve as grounds for the exhortation in 2:6ff.
- Identify the Genre
The macro level is epistolary. The micro level is expository.
- Determine the Structure of the Passage
The structure of this passage is evident in the temporal progression of the reconciliation process:
The Past: “Once you were alienated…” (vs. 21)
The Present: “But now He has reconciled you…” (vs. 22a)
The Future: “In order to present you…” (vs. 22b)
A Condition: “If you remain grounded and steadfast…” (vs. 23)
- Exegete the Passage
In a tail-head linkage, the topic of the previous verse (vs. 20), that is, the reconciling work of Christ, forms the topic of the present paragraph (vs. 21-23), which is an amplification of Christ’s reconciling work.
Vs. 21 describes the past condition of the Colossian believers before they knew Christ. Paul describes them in three ways: they were “alienated,” “hostile in mind, and “engaged in evil actions.” To be alienated means to be estranged, to be far from God. To be hostile in mind means that the Colossians’ thinking was fractured by their sin and was opposed or hostile to God’s character and will. To be engaged in evil actions is the result of the first two descriptions. Because the Colossians’ minds and hearts were far from God, they acted out in ways that expressed exactly how far from God they really were. These verses describe a vicious cycle. Alienation leads to hostility in mind, which leads to evil deeds. The more the Colossians engaged in evil deeds, the more alienated they became.
Vs. 22a describes the present position of those who are in Christ. “But now” provides a strong contrast between the Colossians’ past condition and they present reconciliation they now enjoy. Paul emphasizes God’s initiation and role in salvation: in the midst of our rebellious activity, God interrupted the vicious cycle of our sin and “reconciled you by His physical body through His death.” The cross is seen as the means through which sinful humanity is reconciled to a holy God.
Vs. 22b describes the future presentation of redeemed believers to the Father. Paul says that the Son will present them “holy, faultless, and blameless before Him.” To be holy means to be pure. Since humans are by nature sinful and not pure or holy, God deposits this holiness into our account, as it were. To be faultless means to be without spot or blemish. To be blameless means that no accusation can be leveled against the believer on the day of judgment because they are presented as blameless by the Son.
Vs. 23 introduces a conditional clause. A believer’s salvation is secure, “if indeed you remain grounded and steadfast in the faith and are not shifted away from the hope of the gospel.” While this conditional clause may be disconcerting to some or may appear to conflict with passages that assure the believer of the security of their salvation. However, Paul employs a first class conditional clause, which provides a premise the author assumes to be true for the sake of argument. The “if” in vs. 23 could be translated “provided that you continue,” or “if you continue, and I’m fully confident that you will…” The statement is not intended to disrupt the believers’ assurance of salvation but rather is a statement of confidence that the Colossian believers will indeed unswervingly persevere in their faith.
Vs. 23 concludes with Paul’s declaration that this gospel of reconciliation is a message that has been proclaimed around the world and of which he has become a servant (diakonos). Paul’s service to the gospel forms the tail of this paragraph and will provide the head of the next.
- Let the Structure of the Text Drive the Structure of the Sermon
- A Past Condition, “you were formerly alienated/hostile/evil” (vs. 21)
- A Present Position, “but now He has reconciled you” (vs. 22a)
- A Future Presentation, “in order to present you holy/faultless/blameless” (vs. 22b)
- A Persevering Expectation, “provided you continue” (vs. 23)
An alternate sermon structure:
- Through the cross enemies become friends, “you were…but now” (vs. 21-22a)
- Through the cross the guilty become blameless, “to present you holy…” (vs. 22b)
- Through the cross the unworthy become usable for God’s glory, “this gospel has been proclaimed…I, Paul, have become a servant of it” (vs. 23)