Lectionary Commentaries for November 20, 2016
Christ the King

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 23:33-43

Gilberto Ruiz

On September 30, 2015, the state of Georgia executed Kelly Gissendaner, who plotted the 1997 murder of her husband, Douglas.

While in prison Kelly converted to Christianity and demonstrated that hers was a genuine conversion. Notably, she earned a theology certificate from Emory University and ministered to other inmates with a message of God’s love that gave them hope when they desperately needed it (a few of them had attempted suicide). As her execution date approached, a group of former inmates transformed by Kelly’s prison ministry joined many others who pleaded the state for clemency, including correctional officers, Pope Francis, and supporters using hashtag #kellyonmymind, and even Kelly’s adult children who had lost their father because of Kelly’s actions. All appeals that Kelly’s sentence be commuted to life in prison were denied, another reminder that criminal justice in the U.S. prioritizes vengeance over rehabilitation.1

Luke 23:33-43 challenges us to expand our notions of who deserves mercy. The passage is structured around three instances of mockery leveled against Jesus (verses 35, 36, 39). Stating only that Jesus was crucified alongside two criminals (verse 33), Luke’s narration does not dwell on the mechanics of crucifixion. Luke’s audience would have been aware of its horrific details. Nevertheless, the mockeries communicate how dismal things have become for Jesus. These taunts get closer and closer to him, giving the reader a sense that the forces against Jesus are closing in on him. The Jewish leaders are close enough for Jesus to hear them; the soldiers, who had already taken his garments (verse 34b), come up to Jesus as they mock him; and the final act of derision comes from someone right next to Jesus.

Each of these taunts challenges Jesus to save himself as a demonstration of his identity. In their calls for Jesus to demonstrate his power to save, the leaders, the soldiers, and the criminal address him with titles that from their perspective add to the ridicule but represent valid affirmations of Jesus’ identity for Luke and his readers (“Messiah of God,” Luke 23:35, 39; “chosen one,” verse 35 “King of the Jews,” verses 37, 38). They ironically pronounce Christian truths about Jesus without realizing it, unable to see that Jesus’ identity as “Messiah,” “chosen one,” and “King” is inextricably linked to his crucifixion. The salvation Jesus offers takes place through the cross, not apart from it.

The taunting Jesus receives from the criminal offends the other criminal crucified with Jesus. This second criminal accepts that they are “condemned justly” and deserve their punishment, whereas Jesus “has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41). How he knows that Jesus is innocent is not indicated, but his statement continues Luke’s emphasis on Jesus’ innocence (23:4, 14-15, 22, 47). Nor is it stated what the criminals had done.

Instead, Luke focuses on how these criminals position themselves before Jesus while in their guilty state. The first criminal joins the others in spurning Jesus and demands that Jesus save them all from being crucified (Luke 23:39). Luke presents this criminal’s actions as a serious affront against Jesus, using blasphemeo to narrate his act of deriding Jesus (literally he “kept blaspheming” Jesus). The second criminal also asks something of Jesus, but his earnest request contrasts the first criminal’s selfish, impertinent demand. While others in the scene use titles to mock Jesus, showing they do not really believe Jesus to be Messiah and King, this second criminal accepts in utter sincerity the inscription’s identification of Jesus as “King” (verse 38), asking that he be remembered when Jesus comes into his kingdom (verse 42; see also Psalm 106:4-5). He speaks to Jesus in a startlingly personal and intimate fashion, addressing Jesus directly by name and not with a sarcastic use of a title.

In response, Jesus grants him salvation. Jesus’ words in Luke 23:43 begin with an “Amen” saying (literally “Amen to you I say”) that introduces his “today” pronouncement with a solemn assertiveness. Placed for emphasis immediately after the “Amen” saying is the word “today” (semeron), which appears at key points in Luke’s Gospel to describe the arrival of Jesus’ salvation in the world (2:11; 4:21; 19:9). Its last occurrence in Luke occurs here, at the cross from which Jesus’ salvation becomes a reality to this criminal and a possibility to any of “the lost” (see also 19:10). Luke adopts the term “paradise” (paradeisos) from the Jewish literature of this period; it signifies the realm of eternal bliss in God’s presence where righteous persons go after death.2 Jesus finds this criminal worthy of being in God’s presence with all the righteous (including Jesus himself), despite the fact that by the Roman state and by his own admission he had been “justly” considered worthy of condemnation.

Granted he did not have as much time, but the second criminal did less than Kelly Gissendaner to receive such abundant mercy from Jesus. He acknowledged his own guilt and Jesus’ innocence and made a sincere request that Jesus remember him, but this does not necessarily represent an obvious plea for forgiveness or a full-scale repentance on his part.3 Regardless, Jesus uses his power as “King” to dispense mercy in a boundlessly gracious fashion that far exceeds what is asked of him. As the Church Father Ambrose put it, “More abundant is the favor shown than the request made.”4

Luke’s crucifixion scene shows the wide scope of Jesus’ offer of salvation. Whatever evil or crime one has done is no barrier for acceptance into Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus offers direct access to salvation to persons worthy of the most extreme punishment for their sins. Even those carrying out the crucifixion and the mockeries can be forgiven by Jesus (Luke 23:34a).5 And though he responds to the second criminal’s request, Jesus ignores the calls to save himself, because it is through the cross that he comes into his kingdom, where those deemed unrighteous may share in the salvation of the righteous. His reign is not a death-dealing system intent on punishment, but a “paradise” that “today” extends even to those whom we do not think deserve it.


1 Information about Kelly Gissendaner can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kelly_Gissendaner, http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/29/us/georgia-execution-kelly-gissendaner/, http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/opinion/columns/story/2015/mar/15/sisters-who-struggle-kelly-gissendaner/293356/, and http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steven-w-hawkins/kelly-gissendaner-should_b_8197754.html (all sites accessed May 23, 2016).

2 See Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah, 2 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 2:1010-1012.

3 See Brown, Death, 2:1004-1005.

4 Quoted in Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (X–XXIV), Anchor Bible 28A (New York: Doubleday, 1985), 1508.

5 Luke 23:34a may or may not be original to the Gospel, as it is missing in important manuscripts. For a thorough discussion that argues in favor of its Lucan authenticity, see Brown, Death, 2:971-981.

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 23:1-6

Kelly J. Murphy

In a presidential election year, politics take center stage in the United States.

Before, during and even after the day itself, there is divisiveness: Which side is correct? Does a “lesser of two evils” exist? Will the leader who is selected take the country in the right direction — politically, economically, ideologically, morally? If you have found yourself lamenting your choice in national leaders (as a general rule or more specifically in this particular political era), rest assured that you join a long tradition of such lament. For example, Jeremiah 23:1-6, is set within the larger pericope of chapters 21-23, which focus on the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 bce. In particular, these three chapters emphasize that the various institutional and national leaders of the time — especially the kings, the priests, and the prophets — failed the people of Judah during a time of catastrophic national crisis.

Our passage begins with a woe oracle: “Woe (Hebrew: hoy) to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” (Jeremiah 23:1). Blame clearly rests here on the shepherds, a well-known metaphor for kings in both the larger ancient Near Eastern world and in the biblical texts (see, for example, 2 Samuel 5:2; Isaiah 44:28; Jeremiah 3:15). These verses anticipate the exile of 587 bce, blaming the kings for “scattering” Yhwh’s people because the kings-as-shepherds failed to attend (Hebrew: pqd) to the people-as-sheep. As indicated by the New Revised Standard Version translation, the divine indictment that follows includes a word play: because the kings failed to attend (pqd), in other words, to take care of the people as shepherds are meant to take care of their flocks, Yhwh promises to “attend” (pqd) to the kings for their “evil doings.” The calamitous predicament that these kings find themselves cannot be overstated, for the Hebrew hoy derives from lament language used by mourners over the dead.1 As David Petersen aptly summarizes, “If an oracle began with a woe, then the prophet seemed to be saying that someone or some group was as good as dead.”2 In our case, the kings have failed in the eyes of Yhwh.

Yet while our passage begins with pessimism and an ominous indictment for the shepherds, it moves forward with hope for the sheep. Yhwh promises “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply” (Jeremiah 23:3). Note here that only a “remnant” of the flock remains, another indication of how badly the shepherds have been tending their flock. (Readers will also note a tension here, for while in the previous verses the scattering of the sheep was because of the errant shepherds, here in v. 3 Yhwh notes that he will bring the sheep “out of all the lands where I have driven them.” The exile is at once both caused by the behavior of the kings and also by the agency of the Shepherd of the shepherds: Yhwh.)

As scholars frequently note, once the “remnant” is returned home to the land, the passage invokes the language of Genesis and the promises to the ancestors: the people shall be “fruitful and multiply.” These verses promise rescue and deliverance, a prosperous future for the people, even as Yhwh “attends” to the kings in judgment. Moreover, these verses promise that God will act without any intercessor — without king or priest or prophet — to bring the remaining sheep out of exile.

Therefore, it is somewhat of a surprise when Jeremiah 23:4 looks forward to the restoration of the monarchy, as Yhwh promises to “raise up shepherds” over the returned exiles (23:4). Unlike the previous shepherds, however, these kings will take care of the people, who “shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing” (23:4). This promise of a restored monarchy, while hopeful, is also unexpected set within the larger pericope of Jeremiah 21-23, which so adamantly distrusts and lambasts the ruling institutions of the day, especially the kings. So there is yet another tension in the text: Yhwh both acts without a human agent for the scattered remnant, bringing them home, but also promises a future where there will be a new human king to rule over and protect the people. Jeremiah 23:1-4 is both negative and positive, both sentence and deliverance.

Despite this, the passage ends with unfettered hope. The two final verses of the pericope look forward not only to a restored monarchy, but also to a very specific kind of king: “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness’” (Jeremiah 21:5-6). Several notable features stand out about this promised king: 1) he will be heir to the divine promise to King David; 2) he will be wise and will “execute justice and righteousness in the land” (rather than failing to attend to sheep so that only a remnant remain as with the previous shepherds); 3) he will protect and rule both Judah and Israel; 4) and he will be called yhwh s?id_qenu, “Yhwh is our righteousness.”

As is often observed, the name is similar to that of Zedekiah (“My righteousness is Yhwh”), the last king of Judah who ruled from ca. 597-587 BCE and who was appointed by King Nebuchadrezzar but eventually rebelled against Babylon, despite Jeremiah’s warning that he should not do so (see 2 Kings 24:19-25:21; Jeremiah 21:1-10). Where Zedekiah failed, this Jeremianic passage looks forward to a future Davidic king who will actually be righteous, wise, and just IN short, everything that Zedekiah proved not to be. Moreover, this new Davidic king will rightly acknowledge that Yhwh is the righteous and real king of Israel: “Yhwh is our righteousness.”

While later interpreters will see in this Jeremianic passage a prediction of Jesus Christ as the “righteous branch,” we as readers must also remember that long before the biblical texts of the prophets became religious documents for the early Christians, they were first political documents that reflected the historical realities and concerns of their authors. For the author of our passage in Jeremiah 21:1-6, the kings had failed the people. Nevertheless, there was still hope for a future, legitimate monarch who would restore righteousness and, as shepherds were meant to do, protect the people from threats both external and internal.

Of course, even with the hopeful promise of a future and ideal Davidic king, it is helpful to pause and remember the larger unit of Jeremiah 21-23. Earlier, when Jeremiah counseled King Zedekiah to leave Jerusalem to the Babylonians, he spoke to the people — the sheep — and said, “Thus says the LORD: See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death. Those who stay in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence; but those who go out and surrender to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have their lives as a prize of war” (Jeremiah 21:8-9). Jeremiah’s early words are an important reminder that while leaders — divinely appointed or not — serve an instrumental role in their countries, the people, too, have responsibility and choice.

While our passage opens with judgment and closes with a promise of a future leader who will save and protect the people, the larger book of Jeremiah does not let us — the people — off the hook as we wait. We too must choose. Our choices might not be as dire as “the way of life and the way of death,” but they are nevertheless significant and can affect both those near to us and those a world away. While we live in a world where we often want to place the blame for societal ills on political leaders or larger institutions, our choices — political, economic, ideological, ecological, and more — matter. Our voices, as people, count, as does our engagement or lack of engagement with the world around us. And so while we might hope that our political leaders will “execute justice and righteousness,” in the here and now we make choices and we act — and the choices we make impact whether justice and righteousness are found in the world around us.  


1 David L. Petersen, The Prophetic Literature: An Introduction (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 67.

2 Ibid.


Commentary on Psalm 46

Joel LeMon

Psalm 46 is a song of trust in Yahweh.1

Its three major sections (verses 1-3, 4-7, 8-11) describe Yahweh’s defense of the people against cosmic and geopolitical threats. In the face of these dangers, the community reiterates its fundamental claim: Yahweh is with us (verses 1, 7, 11).

“Though the Earth Should Change”
The first section of the psalm (verses 1-3) testifies to the people’s confidence in Yahweh in the midst of cosmic turmoil. Verses 2-3 depict creation in utter disarray: earthquakes, storms, floods, even a tsunami.

Ancient peoples understood all of these natural phenomena as forces of chaos. As such, they convey an anxiety that the world is slipping out of control.

The roaring sea is one of the stock motifs for chaos throughout the Psalter. Elsewhere, we read of God founding the world amidst or on top of this watery chaos (see Psalm 24:1-2; 104:5-9). In the first verses of this psalm, the churning water threatens to overwhelm the order that God established at creation.

However, in the city of God, where peace and order reigns, the waters run in well-marked channels, nourishing the city (verses 4-5). Yahweh tames the watery chaos.

The psalm evokes another element of nature, the sun, to describe the order that God brings to the city (46:5b). The constant, unyielding movement of the sun across the sky provides the perfect picture of order.

Thus, throughout the ancient Near East, sun gods were understood to be gods of order and righteousness. That tradition lies in the background of this psalm, which contends: as sure as the sun rises at dawn, so certain is God’s rule.

The Roaring Nations
Two types of the threats seem to challenge God’s rule: cosmic disorder, epitomized by the roaring waters (verses 2-3), and political ones, those nations who seek to destroy God’s people (verses 6-7).

These forces are simply different manifestations of the chaos God has already conquered at creation and continues to keep at bay. As such the psalmist uses the similar vocabulary to describe the threats.

As the waters roar (Hebrew hmh, verse 3), so “the nations are in an uproar (hmh)” (verse 6), and as the mountains totter (mwt, verse 2), so “the kingdoms totter” (mwt, verse 6) when they encounter the voice of God. Through all this tumult, the holy city will not totter (mwt, verse 5), for Yahweh is in her midst.

The Reign of Yahweh
In the final section of the psalm (verses 8-11), the faithful community exalts Yahweh and declares God’s dominion. Yahweh exercises power to such an extent that Yahweh obliterates war itself and unbuilds the technology of combat (verse 9).

Following the community’s testimony of Yahweh’s universal disarmament program, the psalm introduces the very voice of God with the command “be still, and know” (verse 10). The audience for God’s words is open and includes both the faithful and the forces of chaos that threaten them. As such, God’s command reminds us of Christ’s words to the raging sea (Mark 4:39).

The psalm ends with the refrain that also appeared in verse 7: “Yahweh of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.” This refrain echoes verse 1 in describing God’s strength and his ability to afford protection. While verse 1 highlights God’s protecting presence, the refrain in verses 7 and 11 place the accent on God’s identity.

Two titles appear in the refrains. The first, “Yahweh of hosts,” signifies Yahweh’s control of the heavenly armies and refers to God as the supremely powerful deity (cf. 1 Samuel 4:4; 2 Samuel 6:2; Isaiah 37:16). The second, “the God of Jacob,” recalls Yahweh’s history with a particular people.

Thus, the psalm asserts that the god of the patriarchs and matriarchs is none other than the god who commands the hosts of heaven. The people have had a long history with this God-a history that reminds them that God is trustworthy.

The True Source of Our Trust
The particular name of the “city of God” (verses 4-5) does not appear in this psalm, lest the readers confuse the source of the protection with an easily identifiable location. To tie Yahweh’s protective power to a specific locale, risks the vanity of trusting in human power.

This psalm exhorts its earliest audience not to base its confidence on high, thick walls and expert archers manning the balustrades. It is only God’s presence that promotes security.

Today we can hear the psalm’s message clearly, but many find it difficult to believe. We much prefer to trust in that which we can see: a strong military and a robust economy. or full savings accounts and solid resumes. But these “defenses” ultimately prove unreliable.

God is the only sure defense. On Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of the liturgical year, the Church reminds itself once again of God’s ultimate power over all. Our salvation comes not through military, economic, or physical strength, but through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Indeed, this psalm has been an anthem of the faithful throughout Christian history. In the turmoil of the Reformation, Martin Luther turned to Psalm 46 for courage and comfort. His robust melody and stirring lyrics became the definitive hymn of the Reformed tradition, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” (Ein’ feste Burg, ca. 1529).

Today, when faced with difficult situations, all Christians—both Protestants and Catholics—do well to remember the central message of the psalm.  We are inclined to place our trust in our own resources or in the world’s mighty institutions. Yet these cannot remedy our fear, for they are unable to match the power of God.

The psalm guides us to faith and encourages us to claim: “A mighty fortress is our God.”


1. This commentary first published on this site on Nov. 21, 2010.

Alternate Psalm

Commentary on Luke 1:68-79

Karla Suomala

The author of Luke-Acts was a master storyteller.

Writing for a Greek-speaking audience, he communicated the good news of Jesus Christ in a style reminiscent of the Greco-Roman epic. Replete with heroes and heroic acts, miraculous events, interesting characters, drama and suspense, the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles together form one grand narrative that links the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection to the story of how Christianity began.

In epic style, Luke 1-2 recount not one, but two angelic visits, two outlandish birth announcements, two miraculous births (one to a virgin, the other to an elderly, barren woman), the arrival of a baby prophet and an infant Messiah, two circumcisions, and the fulfillment of ancient prophecy and expectation. As if that isn’t enough, the narrative is interspersed with three major arias or canticles.

In the first, the Magnificat, Mary breaks into a song of praise and awe and even revolution upon seeing the pregnant Elizabeth. Drawing on the words of her biblical ancestor Hannah (1 Samuel), the girl-mother demonstrates that she has moved from puzzlement over her situation to deep understanding; she sees herself at the center of salvation history and embraces this new role.

The second canticle, Luke 1:68-79 or the Benedictus, occurs when the mute Zechariah and Elizabeth bring their newborn son to be circumcised eight days after his birth. When asked what the child will be called, Zechariah asks for a piece of paper and writes the name “John.” Suddenly, his ability to speak returns and Zechariah bursts into a canticle of blessing beginning with the familiar phrasing, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel … ”

The third canticle, the Nunc Dimittis (“Now let your servant go …”) found in Luke 2:29-32, also occurs at a circumcision as Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to be circumcised at the Temple on the eighth day. When the elderly Simeon, whom the Holy Spirit had assured would not die before seeing the Messiah, sees the child, he sings this canticle of praise as a fitting conclusion to Act 1 — the birth of a Messiah.

The language of blessing

Though the words of Zechariah’s canticle or aria, the Benedictus in Luke 1:68-79, are familiar from scripture and liturgy, we rarely step back to consider more precisely what Zechariah is doing when he uses this ancient blessing formula. In the Psalms and other poetic texts, the language of blessing is often used in parallel with praise or gratitude making it almost seem as if the language of blessing is just another way of expressing either of these sentiments. See, for example, Psalm 34:1: “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth;” or Psalm 145:2: “Every day I will bless you, and praise your name for ever and ever.” This, at first glance, would make sense of Zechariah’s opening words, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel …” in the context in which he says them, praise at the birth and circumcision of his son.

But looking more closely at its use throughout the biblical text, the verb “to bless” or the noun “blessing” seem to be more than just synonyms for praise or gratitude, in part because they function differently. The language of praise, for example, moves in one direction: from humans toward God. This kind of praise is imbued with a sense of awe, wonder and reverence that can only be directed toward God. Praising God is often connected with who God is or what God has done, with that which already exists or has occurred.

Blessing, on the other hand, is more flexible — people can bless each other, God can bless people or things (animals, land, etc.), and people can bless God. And unlike praise, blessing often takes place before something happens or comes into being. In Genesis 12 for example, God tells Abraham to get up and go, to leave his country and his people and then, before Abraham has even taken his first step or responded in any way, God says “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” In our own lives, we often bless our food before we even take the first bite, as in “Let these gifts to us be blessed … ”

More than a wish or an expression of hope, the language of blessing is grounded in certainty. When God blesses humans, God is making a promise — a statement of assurance — that what God has said, God will do. Whether it’s rain, a good harvest, or many children, God first blesses and then brings the blessing to fruition. This happens from the very first time the word “bless” is used in the Hebrew Bible in Genesis 1:22. God first blesses the creatures of the sea and the birds of the air and then commands them to be fruitful and multiply (which they ultimately do).

Zechariah’s blessing

When humans bless God, as Zechariah does in the Gospel of Luke, they are also making a statement, but theirs is one of confidence, conviction, and even recognition that God acts or is about to act. Zechariah doesn’t just hope that God will bring about the salvation of God’s people, he knows that it’s upon them even though both John and Jesus are still infants.  

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty saviour for us …

Zechariah knows that even though the time between blessing and fulfillment can be long and difficult, God ultimately keeps God’s word:

Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.

Zechariah knows that his newborn son will soon play a role in bringing God’s blessing into the world:

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people …

And Zechariah blesses the Lord, the God of Israel in his old age, because he knows that:

By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Second Reading

Commentary on Colossians 1:11-20

Frank L. Crouch

This pericope easily breaks into two sections.

Each is loaded with key ideas and images, many of which could be treated individually as its own sermon. The challenge for any preacher lies in discerning what to select out of the abundant richness of this text. It would be easy to try to cover too much for one sermon. (This passage might make an excellent basis for a retreat, with a closing sermon tying the main threads together.)

The first section — Colossians 1:11-14 — could serve as a theological vocabulary test, laying out a myriad of ways we grow and are transformed in Christ. A sermon series could focus on key words and ideas: First on strength, power, and glory; then on endurance and patience; then on joy and thanksgiving; on being rescued from the grip of temptations and habits that lead us astray; on living now in a realm of new inclinations and possibilities; on the difference it makes to be redeemed and forgiven. That might at least give key topics a helpfully longer exploration. At the same time, however, breaking each of those out into an extended series would also dilute their cumulative impact. Taken together as one group at one time would allow a description of interrelated facets of the same transformation, how they might combine in each of us to bring new life.

The second section — Colossians 1:15-20 — offers its own Christological images test, laying out a myriad of ways to describe and understand Christ. One could, again, create a sermon series: First on what it means to say that Christ is the [visible] image of the invisible God; second, the depiction of Christ as creator, redeemer, and sustainer (no modalism in this passage); then on how Christ offers a direct channel to the most ancient, timeless, eternal things of God; on how Christ serves as the head of the church; on how Christ embodied God; and on how Christ is savior of us all and of all creation. Again, however, this might tend toward treating these as doctrinal starting points rather than as images that point to the deepest realities of God available to us in our own lives. (Exploring doctrinal systems and their internal coherence is certainly not a bad thing to do, as long as the focus remains on connecting with the transforming power of life in Christ, rather than focusing on defending a particular doctrinal system.) Further, if these images of Christ are treated separately from the first section, that breaks this pericope’s inherent connection between one’s daily living and God’s enduring purposes for all creation.

Turning to smaller units of words, ideas, or images, the following offers specific considerations and connections that lie in the sequence and “flow” of the passage:

  • Colossians 1:11-14 mention “all strength” and “endur[ing] everything with patience” (verse 11, New Revised Standard Version). Translators of this passage have the difficult task of breaking up long, choppy, multipart Greek sentences (which Greeks loved) into shorter, more graceful sentences (which English-speakers generally prefer).

This masks a more complex forcefulness of the original language. All three characteristics are mentioned here with the dual sense of “complete, total” strength, endurance, and patience and “every kind” of strength, endurance, and patience. It’s not just “lots” of each of them, but every possible variety of each of them for every possible circumstance.

Out of Christ’s glorious power flow deep reservoirs of physical endurance, mental toughness, psychological health, and spiritual depth for us to draw on as we face the powers that oppose the will and ways of God (verse 14).

These reservoirs flow out of the redemption and forgiveness that follow from Christ’s work on our behalf. Here, redemption and forgiveness translate Greek words that refer to “release.” Forgiveness here means not just eternal life but new ways of life. New power comes from being released from the powers, motives, reasonings, or habits that have led us astray and still resist releasing us. Being “rescued … and transferred” into the realm of Christ and sharing the “inheritance of the saints in light” means that we are not only expected and called to live in Christ but enabled and empowered to do so (verses 12-4). Even if imperfectly, redemption, and release do not merely offer us a new self-image and new intentions, they empower, in Christ, new actions.

  • Colossians 1:15-20, as noted before, offer more images of Christ than any one sermon could bear. However, one might gather their core similarities into two groups.

In the first grouping, Christ is described as the “image” (or in the Greek, “icon”) of God and as the “fullness” of God.

In the first case, “icon” refers to something that exhibits the same form, appearance, pattern as something else. In the Gospel of John, Jesus’s statement, “whoever has seen me has seen the Father”, (John 14:9) says essentially the same thing.

In the second case, “fullness” refers to fullness in the sense of completeness, totality, as in “everything God is or does was present in Christ.” Again, from John, this is the virtual equivalent of saying “he was with God and was God” (John 1:2) or “whatever the Father does, the Son does” (John 5:19).

Both cases point to the same reality — Christ as image and fullness of God exists as a direct channel to all that God is and does, enabling our heart, soul, strength, and mind to be grounded in the powerful redemption and release continually poured out into us and into all of creation.

In the second, related grouping, the idea of fullness, completeness, and totality lies in the repetition of the “all-ness” of Christ in relation to the whole creation. Christ is firstborn of “all” creation (Colossians 1:15). “All things” (stated twice) were created in, through, and for Christ (verse 16). Christ is before “all things” and holds “all things” together (verse 17). In Christ, not only the fullness of God, but “all” the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (verse 19). In Christ, “all” things were reconciled (verse 20).

  • Pulling both sections together: In Christ we find all kinds of strength, endurance, patience, joy, and thanksgiving in release from old life and growth in new life. All these things flow out of all the ways that Christ connects all of us and all of creation to the power, life, faith, hope, and love (see also Colossians 1:3-8) that constitute life’s richest possibilities and the deepest realities of God and God’s creation.