New Testament Words and Verses
The Rhetoric of Colossians 1:21-23
Two rhetorical devices in these three verses of Colossians not only enrich Paul’s theological argument but add a literary flourish that make them unforgettable. Those devices are alliteration and hendiadys. The alliteration is seen in five distinct words in vv 21-22 beginning with an alpha; the hendiadys is evident in v 23 when he uses two words of “foundation” or “sitting” to emphasize the one concept of solidity of faith in Christ. One might even argue that the first two “alpha-beginning “ verbs in vv 21-22 were so memorable that the author of Ephesians, if it isn’t Paul, took them up in the same way as Paul in Colossians.
The Two Verbs
As you will see, the two alliterative verbs are a mouthful to pronounce:
21 Καὶ ὑμᾶς ποτε ὄντας ἀπηλλοτριωμένους καὶ ἐχθροὺς τῇ διανοίᾳ ἐν τοῖς ἔργοις τοῖς πονηροῖς, 22 νυνὶ δὲ ἀποκατήλλαξεν ἐν τῷ σώματι τῆς σαρκὸς αὐτοῦ διὰ τοῦ θανάτου
“And you, at one time being estranged/alienated and enemies in mind in evil works, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh through his death. . .” (Col. 1:21-22).
The “being far off/being reconciled” contrast of place is supplemented by the “at one time/now’ contrast of time. That is, the ποτε. . . νυνὶ (“at one time. . .now”) contrast serves to highlight the more potent difference in the verbs. Care should be taken in examining the two verbs, the first seven syllables and the second six syllables in length. Behind the verb ἀπαλλοτριόομαι is the preposition “from” and the verb “to be the other” or “to be a stranger.” The concept of being the other or not belonging is perhaps one of the most common experiences of human life. We all know what it means not to be part of a group; we just don’t “fit.” The addition of the preposition isn’t really necessary to establish meaning, but it can act as an intensifier in Greek. Thus, the Apostle is addressing those who were “way far away.”
But these folks who were “way far away” are now “reconciled” through Christ’s death. Ephesians will pick up on the “way far away” theme more than Colossians, as it stresses that those ἀπηλλοτριωμένοι (estranged/alienated) are μακρὰν (“far off”) and that they weren’t simply “reconciled,” but were ἐγγὺς (“brought near”; Eph. 2:12-13). The verb for reconcile is also a mouthful to pronounce: ἀποκατήλλαξεν, which consists of two prepositions (“from” and “down”/“completely”) as well as the verb meaning “to exchange.” Again, the preposition ἀπο acts as a sort of intensifier here. “Fully foreign/completely reconciled” is the tone of these words.
We need to see both the alliteration in the words as well as the length of the verbs. The alliteration gives it a rhythmic sound that emphasizes the power of the concepts; the thirteen syllables makes the words difficult to pronounce quickly. Thus, just as one has to “dwell” on the words, so the concept is worth “dwelling” on. Complete alienation and full reconciliation. That is the power of alliteration.
Three More Alpha-Beginning Words
But it doesn’t stop there. The rest of verse 22 tells us that the purpose of this reconciliation is:
παραστῆσαι ὑμᾶς ἁγίους καὶ ἀμώμους καὶ ἀνεγκλήτους κατενώπιον αὐτοῦ
“to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him.”
Three words are here presented; two would have sufficient; indeed, it is hard to discern a difference among the three words. The first word, ἁγίους, is the common word for something hat tis holy. The second word has an alpha-privative (i.e., which reverses the meaning of the original noun), with the underlying noun meaning “blemish.” Thus, holy and without blemish. The third word also begins with an alpha privative and then is derived from the verb ἐγκαλέω, which appears 7x in the New Testament and has to do with bringing a charge against or accusing someone of something. Thus, the ἀμώμους is taken from the realm of sacrifice (the animals have to be offered without a blemish) and the ἀνεγκλήτους from the realm of law, where someone has no charge or accusation placed against them.
These five words, all beginning with alpha, cover an immense ground theologically. We move from the experience of being a stranger or a person far off and enter into the notion of reconciliation or the ending of hostility. The result of this process is also three words beginning with alpha, stressing the holiness or separation of the believers, as well as their being like the sacrifice without blemish or the person accused who has no reproach.
Paul uses the beauty of alliteration to capture the beauty of the believers’ new position in Christ. But that new position isn’t described with the five “alpha-beginning” words. Rather the two words in v 23, τεθεμελιωμένοι and ἑδραῖοι, focus on the firmness of the believers’ new position in Christ. The first of these two is, literally, “to be founded” or “to be built on a foundation,” with θεμέλιος being the underlying noun. But ἑδραῖοι is no less colorful. It is derived from the word for “chair” or “seat,” εδρος. While the first of the two words comes from the building trade, the second is from interior decorating. Thus, the Apostle has exploited many realms of meaning to come up with the concepts of reconciliation and solidity of the new life in faith.
Conclusion—A Word on Ephesians
The same language of distance and reconciliation, using the identical verbs as in Colossians 1:21-22, is present in Ephesians 2:13-16. But there the language focuses more on the political or covenantal relationship of the believers. You who once were alienated “from the commonwealth of Israel” and were ”strangers” to the “covenant of promise” (Eph. 2:13) are now “reconciled (Eph. 2:16). But rather than just leaving it at that, Ephesians emphasizes two things: the “far off” and “near” contrast of those verbs, as mentioned above, and the breaking down of a barrier in the middle between people. So, rather than the highly individualistic notion of the believer’s salvation that was stressed in Colossians 1, the author of Ephesians stresses more its communal nature. Salvation in this part of Ephesians is moving from one “polity” to another, bursting through the wall of separation that separated people. Finally, in Ephesians 2, there is mention of the annulment or abolition of the law using a favorite word of Paul in Romans: καταργέω. The end result is that literary power and theological meaning are married in both passages, leaving a memorable combination for us.
The role of δογματίζω in Colossians 2:20
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