Making (some) sense of the death of Jesus (Colossians 2; Pentecost 7C)

The section of the letter to the Colossians that appears in the lectionary for this coming Sunday (Col 2:6–15) contains some intriguing phrases. It offers a portrayal of Jesus that stretches beyond what we find in the earlier, authentic letters of Paul. There, Jesus is a Jewish man, chosen by God, designated as God’s Son, raised from the dead, and designated as Lord (see, for instance, Gal 4:4 and Rom 1:1–4).

In this letter, Jesus becomes the one “in whom the fullness of deity dwells” (2:9; also 1:19). There is no evident sense of the humanity of Jesus; he is swept up into the mystical-philosophical world of “elemental spirits” (2:8) and deals with the “rulers and authorities” of that dimension (2:15). Indeed, in the previous chapter, the writer of this letter (whom I don’t believe was Paul) praises Jesus in full blown terms: “he is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him” (1:15–16).

(For my thoughts on the authorship of this letter, see https://johntsquires.com/2022/07/08/the-word-of-truth-according-to-colossians-1-pentecost-5c/)

In contrast to the expressions that Paul provides about the community of believers being “the body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:12, 27), in this letter, the mystical speculation grows; “he himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (1:17); and indeed, rather than the whole body being Christ, here Christ is “the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything (1:18).

So when we see the figure of Christ placed into this mystical-speculative-philosophical context, we know that we have moved quite a way from the thoughts about Jesus that the apostle Paul dictated in his letters; we have entered a world that scholars call proto-Gnosticism. Gnostics were those who—to put it very simply—believed that salvation came, not through faith, but by means of knowledge. The one who knows is the one who is saved.

Thus, in this letter written to “the saints and faithful ones in Colossae” (1:1), knowledge is emphasised (1:9–10; 2:2–3; 3:10). The author sends this letter to the Colossians to encourage and strengthen them in their knowledge. Paul, by contrast, commends those to whom he writes for their faith (Rom 1:5, 8; Phil 1:25; 1 Thess 1:2–3).

To be sure, the anonymous writer of this letter, drawing from Paul’s practices, does commend the Colossians for their faith (Col 1:4), but it is his prayer “that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (1:9), that they may “grow in the knowledge of God” (1:10), that they may “have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (2:2–3).

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So, this letter is somewhat different from the style and theology of the seven letters authentically written by Paul. Another way in which is is different from the thoughts set out in those letters, can be seen in verses 3–15 of chapter 2.

First, let’s note that the verses immediately before this do seem to correlate with Paul’s way of thinking. The notion of “spiritual circumcision” (2:11) bears similarities with the claim that “it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh” (Phil 2:3), or “real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal” (Rom 2:29). Although, Paul does also dismiss circumcision as being “nothing” (1 Cor 7:19), “for neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything” (Gal 6:15). Perhaps in those verses he is dismissing physical circumcision as it gets in the way of “spiritual circumcision” ?

And the description of being “buried with [Christ] in baptism” (Col 2:12) does seem similar to the statements that “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death … we have been buried with him by baptism into death … we have been united with him in a death like his” (Rom 6: 3–5).

Although, once again, it has to be noted that the sequence in Romans 6 looks to a future union with Christ in his resurrection, whereas in Colossians that union is now present, having been achieved by a (perhaps recent) past event: “when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col 2:12). So there is a subtle difference; a development in thinking beyond that of the authentic Paul.

It is in what follows, however, that a striking difference emerges. In verses 13–15 the letter writer considers exactly what was achieved by Jesus when he was crucified. In Paul’s authentic letters, he draws on what many consider to be a very early, pre-existing formulation which seeks to convey just what Jesus did when he submitted to death on the cross, when he gave up his life.

In those letters, Paul notes that “Christ died for us”. That’s a short and simple way to describe the significance of the death of Jesus; we find it at Rom 5:6,8, 14:15; 1 Cor 8:11, 15:3; 2 Cor 5:14-15; Gal 2:21; and 1 Thess 5:10. That’s five of the seven authentic letters; the matter of the death of Jesus does not figure at all in what is being discussed in Philemon; and in Philippians, the death of Jesus serves to emphasise his humility and obedience (Phil 2:8), and Paul’s main interest is in his this death serves to effect a transformation in believers (Phil 3:21).

This affirmation, “Christ died for us”, forms the foundation for an intricate and complex system of sacrificial atonement theology which is developed beyond the time of the New Testament. These eight times when Paul says, “Christ died for us”, join with a number of other passing comments elsewhere in New Testament texts, to provide the basis for what would become, over time, a detailed understanding of the death of Jesus as a death made on behalf of, and in the place of, believers. An explanation is developed, drawing especially on the Jewish sacrificial system, in which the sacrifices of animals were understood to be the way by which the sins of people were forgiven.

But not in the letter to the Colossians. A different understanding of the significance of the death of Jesus is offered. A different way to explain how God forgives us our sins, how we have atonement made for our transgressions, how we are reconciled with God. The language used, and the concepts referenced, are quite different. And this opens the door to a different way of understanding and appreciating the death of Jesus.

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This area of Christian theology—how to understand the death of Jesus—is known as soteriology (relating to “how we are saved”), with a strong emphasis being placed on atonement (that is, what is the mechanism for bringing us back into reconciled relationship with God). The atonement has become a debated and disputed arena. How do we understand this today?

One concern that is often expressed concerns the way that a religious system has a focus on a violent action at the centre of its belief system. Can it be a good thing to celebrate the way that God causes, or at least approves of, the putting to death of Jesus? We have every right to ask critical and penetrating questions about this aspect of our faith.

Another element of the debate is the claim that can be paraphrased as “Jesus died in my place, he was sacrificed for my sins, to save me from hell”. This is the classic way that I hear this view expressed, and it is often described as the substitutionary atonement theory. It depends on, but moves well beyond, the understanding that was inherent in the Jewish sacrificial system.

Certainly, dealing with the sinful manifestations of human nature is at the heart of Christian doctrine, and theories of atonement regularly grapple with how this is effected. However, I can’t see that the New Testament, anywhere, sets forth such a fully-developed theory of atonement. In true systematic theology style, verses have been plucked from various places in the New Testament, and woven together, with little regard for their original context or intention, to form a developed theory that owes more to rationalist deductive argumentation, than it does to biblical texts.

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The explanation in Col 2:13–15 is quite different. Here, the author sees the scene of the crucifixion in his mind’s eye; but rather than relating what was happening there to the Jewish sacrificial system, the vision of the author draws on other imagery. The scene envisaged is much more like a triumphal procession, as seen in the Roman Empire, when captured slaves were paraded through the city streets as captives, and the people celebrated another great victory of the Empire.

The cross, the place where Jesus was nailed and hung until he died (most usually from suffocation), is not envisaged as similar to the place in the Temple where the sacrificial animals were burnt, or even where the blood of the slain animals was smeared (the language of Rom 3:25 draws on on this quite explicitly). It is seen as a public place where “legal demands” (dogmata, 2:14) are nailed for all to see; a public place where those “legal demands” are erased. The language here is about “stripping bare” so that the inequity of those demands is revealed for all to see.

As a result of this, what Jesus is doing on the cross is “disarm[ing] the rulers and authorities”, removing their power, rendering them ineffective (2:15). The Greek word translated as “make a public example of” in this verse, points to a scene of public shaming. The only other place it is used in the New Testament is Matt 1:19, where it refers to the “public disgrace” of Mary being revealed as pregnant without a husband. It would be a moment of intense shaming for her, such that “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her” in this way was planning to “dismiss her quietly”, in accordance with custom—until an angel of the Lord intervened!

So the “legal demands” have been “disarmed” or (in another possibility) “divested”, in a process of “making a public example”. As a consequence, what the author sees as Jesus hangs, naked, whipped, gasping for water, dying on the cross, is nothing other than a celebratory triumphal match (“he made a public example … triumphing over them” (2:15).

Who does Jesus triumph over? The “rulers and authorities”—most likely the same as the “thrones, dominions, rulers, powers” referred to earlier (1:16), or the “elemental spirits of the universe” (2:10). The crucifixion has been the location for God’s cosmic battle— remembering that Hod is the subject of the whole clause of 2:13–15.

These “rulers and authorities” are most likely the same entities referred to in Colossian’s companion letter, Ephesians; “all rule and authority and power and dominion” (Eph 1:21), “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:10); “the rulers … the authorities … the cosmic powers of this present darkness … the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12), that are best combatted by “tak[ing] up the whole armour of God” (Eph 6:13–17).

Almost a century ago, a theologian named Gustav Aulen wrote a hugely-influential book, Christos Victor, in which he put forward a theory of atonement quite different from the sacrificial-victim, ransom-theory, penal-substitutionary-atonement line of thought. This passage fuelled his argument. The crucifixion, Aulen proposed, declared the liberation of humanity from the bondage of sinfulness and death; it was the way that God declared victory over demonic forces.

Later, an American biblical scholar named Walter Wink took this theory, re-engaged with the relevant biblical texts, and proposed that the victory won by God was not simply over spiritual beings in a heavenly realm, but actually a gritty, this-earthly battle with the systems and forces within society that embedded sinfulness in our very way of living. Wink wrote an influential series, Naming the Powers (1984), Unmasking the Powers (1986), Engaging the Powers (1992), When the Powers Fall (1998), and The Powers that Be (1999), in which he wrote about the myth of “redemptive violence”.

So this short passage in Colossians is very important. It opens the door to a different way of thinking about the crucifixion. It invites us to take seriously our earthly context, and to consider how we are engaged, along with Jesus, in executing the work of God, to disarm the rulers and authorities, publically expose them, and triumph over their evil force.

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For more discussion of the atonement and the way that the New Testament writers understood this, see

It was yet another Passover meal—or was it? (Maundy Thursday, Year C)

The following liturgy was written in April 2022 and conducted at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Maundy Thursday, 14 April 2022. The liturgy was conducted around a labyrinth, laid out in the worship area. There were six tables, each forming the focus of one section of the liturgy.

Seven candles were lit at the end of the first section, as reflective music played. Participants were invited to remove their shoes for the service, to sit and meditate or gently walk the labyrinth whilst the reflective music was playing.

After the words for each following section, a candle was extinguished, and reflective music was played, during which participants could sit and meditate, or walk a section of the labyrinth. Participants were encouraged to stay in their place on the labyrinth, or move to a nearby chair, as the words of each section were spoken.

The first and last sections took place focused around a table on which some cups, grapes, and bread were set, forming the elements for communion in the last section.

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A LITURGY FOR MAUNDY THURSDAY in the YEAR OF LUKE (Year C)

1 The Room

(Please remove your shoes)

Tonight, we gather, and remember;

we remember, and rejoice …

for it was Passover time.

Now of course, it began in celebration;

a gathering of friends and family;

a joyful occasion, with the drinking of wine,

some singing, some laughing; a meal shared together;

but then, a kiss … a betrayal … a denial … a trial …

Yet it began in celebration.

For years, it was so; for decades, for centuries,

on this very night, we would gather, joined as family,

to remember, to rejoice, to recall the act of liberation.

So we praise you, Lord our God, King of the universe;
You who have chosen us and made us holy,

a nation of priests, a people set apart.


Yes, we praise you, Lord our God, King of the universe;
You who create the fruit of the vine.
Yes, we praise you, Lord our God, King of the universe;
You who bring forth bread from the earth.

We praise you in the lighting of the candles,

signs of your presence amongst us tonight;

in these sparkling, enlivening lights,

we remember that we are a light to the nations.

THE CANDLES ARE LIT

SONG: Bless the Lord, my soul (Taize)

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2 The Road

It was yet another Passover meal — or was it?

We began like every other Passover meal;

we began by recalling the story …

and yet, although we did not know it,

this time it would be different;

a different Passover celebration;

a different time entirely.

It probably began with what he said

as he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

“Sell all you own, care for the poor;

Take up your cross, come follow me;

Lay down your life, deny yourself.”

Looking back, we can hear the resonances;

the hints were there; but we were deaf.

We couldn’t grasp these words;

for the journey was the moment,

the crowds that surged as he healed,

the crowds that marvelled as he taught,

the crowds that continued with him on the way,

enthralled, persuaded, believing.

You see, the journey was the moment,

destination Jerusalem, holy city,

city of the prophets, city of the kings,

the holy place where God still dwells.

Hosanna, blessings, celebration;

“Bless the king, sound hosannas;

peace in heaven, the promise is near,

glory abounds”, the crowd cries out;

the day of salvation is at hand.

“Sell all you own, care for the poor;

Take up your cross, come follow me;

Lay down your life, deny yourself.”

We cared not for those hard words now;

the swirl of the crowd, the shouts of acclamation,

the spreading of cloaks and waving of branches,

reminders of the times of triumph,

anticipation of the coming glory.

Blessed is the king;

he comes in God’s name.

He comes in God’s glory,

he comes bearing peace.

When would we see it?

A CANDLE IS EXTINGUISHED on table 2

SONG: Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna to the king of kings

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3 The Room

Now the festival drew near:

unleavened bread, called the Passover,

the celebration of redemption,

the time of God’s salvation.

God came, God saved us,

we hurried to respond;

no time to prepare, no time to bake the bread;

we gathered what we could, left hurriedly,

in haste, intent on being ready—

it was the Passover of God,

when God saved the people.

So we gathered, now, to remember,

retell the ancient story,

relive the present promise.

The table was set, with bread and wine,

for this festival of the Lord,

the celebration of Passover …

We met around the table; a family extended,
with brothers and sisters, children and friends;
aunts … uncles … cousins … disciples …
a cacophony of colleagues, family and followers.

As we met around the table, we joined our voices,

with a psalm of celebration; a psalm of hallelujah.

We gathered as a family,

with roasted lamb and bitter herbs,

unleavened bread, four cups of wine;

we gather now, to celebrate,

and as we do, we anticipate:

God, you saved us then;

O God, save us now.

A CANDLE IS EXTINGUISHED on table 3

SONG: Laudate Dominum

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4 The Room

You know the Passover is coming,

when God will save the people;

“and the Son of Man will be handed over;

they will mock him, they will whip him,

they will nail him to the cross, to die.”

For the Passover is coming,

when God will save the people.

“I have eagerly desired to share this time,

to celebrate this Passover, with you, my friends.”

First, the cup which signals the kingdom to come;

“take it, drink from it, remember as you drink”;

then the bread, “this is my body”,

words that strained our incredulity.

Then yet again a cup, the covenant renewed;

familiar ground? yet curiously,

“the cup poured out, a new covenant,

sealed in my blood, shed for you”.

Then words of betrayal; woe to that one,

one we had trusted, one we had honoured.

What was going on in his mind?

We could not know:

of the gathering of leaders, we knew not,

of the plot to seize him quietly, we knew not,

of the thirty pieces of silver, we knew not.

Unthinkable, it turns out, what he was doing:

unimaginable, the consequence of this squalid deal.

But we were at a meal that was filled with celebration;

the somber notes he sounded were lost amidst the joy.

It was the Passover of God,

when God has saved the people.

It was a gathering of friends and family;

a joyful occasion, with the drinking of wine,

some singing, some laughing; a meal shared together.

A CANDLE IS EXTINGUISHED on table 4

SONG: Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom (Taize)

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5 The Garden

Not too long after the betrayer left him,

not too long after, they came for him.

Not just the crowd in the garden,

not just the priests from the temple,

not just the elders who had formed an unholy alliance,

scribes and priests together, on the hunt;

but they came with their thugs, the temple police,

intent on arresting him, as if he were a criminal.

“I was with you, day after day, in the temple,

and you didn’t come for me there. But now—

but here, in this dark moonlit moment,

under cover of night, you seize me?

This is your hour; this is the power of darkness.”

So began this cruel, twisted fate,

from Gethsemane to Golgotha.

With brute force they manhandled him;

to the High Priest, mocking him on the way.

The mocking continued in the assembly,

priests and scribes, elders of the people,

taunting, baiting, condemning.

And then to Pilate, accusing him of crimes

that made no sense to our listening ears.

“Sell all you own, care for the poor;

Take up your cross, come follow me;

Lay down your life, deny yourself.”

That’s what we remembered him saying.

They said, however, that he perverts the nation,

forbids the paying of taxes,

claiming to be Messiah,

claiming to be king.

So Pilate sends him to Herod;

and Herod sends him back to Pilate;

and Pilate insists there is no charge to answer.

Of course there was no charge to answer!

His words cut to the heart of what it means

to be a disciple, to be committed to the covenant,

to share generously with those in need,

to put the concerns of others before oneself,

to open the eyes of the blind

and enable the lame to walk,

to proclaim good news for the poor

and liberation for the captives …

… then again, then perhaps,

that can sound somewhat …

confrontational …

revolutionary …

no wonder that they say he came

to turn the world upside down.

But we had no notion of this

as we walked the road, while he healed and taught,

or as we entered the city, surrounded by jubilations,

or as we sat with him at table, remembering with joy.

Yet there he stood:

charged, condemned;

sentenced to be crucified,

the punishment of slaves,

the fate in store for rebels,

perhaps, even, the inevitable outcome

of a predetermined plan?

Lord, have mercy;

Lord, have mercy …

A CANDLE IS EXTINGUISHED on table 5

SONG: Stay with me (Taize)

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6 The Hill

So they led him away, to the top of the hill,

the place of punishment for rebels and criminals.

There were no echoes, now,

of the jubilant cries of the crowd;

there was no sound that fitted

with family celebrations at Passover;

there most certainly was no longer the basis

for acclaiming him as King,

for announcing him as Saviour,

for decreeing he was Lord.

Naked, bloodied, scourged, humiliated,

brought down to common status

as the wooden beam was lifted high;

the mocking words of the soldiers,

the scornful tongues of the leaders,

the taunting cry of the disbelieving thief;

the silent sobbing of companions on the way,

the eerie overshadowing, the turmoil of darkness.

This, to be sure,

was a cruel, twisted fate.

So he died.

What cry pierced the air?

Distraught rejection, some would say;

a cry of sheer abandonment.

Others claim it was far more serene;

“Abba, Father, into your hands

I commend my being, I place my spirit.”

“Sell all you own, care for the poor;

Take up your cross, come follow me;

Lay down your life, deny yourself.”

Who remembers those words now?

A CANDLE IS EXTINGUISHED on table 6

SONG: Be still, and know that I am God

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7 The Room

We returned to the room;

the place of celebration;

the place of remembering.

There is no doubt that we would remember;

the events of the past few days

are seared into memory,

caught in the web of recollection,

every year, every month, every day.

But how could we celebrate?

The Passover of God,

the time of salvation,

the deed of redemption,

in the days of Moses.

That surely would continue;

we would most certainly recall,

we would indeed remember,

embedding the story for our children

and their children.

Would this passing of the master

be a Passover for God?

How could this untimely ending

be the cause of celebration?

So we gather, we remember.

It began in celebration;

a gathering of friends and family;

a joyful occasion, with the drinking of wine,

some singing, some laughing; a meal shared together;

but then, a kiss … a betrayal … a denial … a trial …

“Sell all you own, care for the poor;

Take up your cross, come follow me;

Lay down your life, deny yourself.”

SONG: Eat this bread (Taize) as we exit the labyrinth

(Around the final table)

So he took the bread,

as they had always taken the bread;

and lifting it high, he offered his prayers to God.

And we take the bread, and break it:
and we praise you, Lord our God, King of the universe;
You who bring forth bread from the earth.

WE EAT THE BREAD

Then he took the cup,

as they had always taken the cup;

and lifting it high, he offered his prayers to God.

And we take the cup, and drink it,

and we praise you, Lord our God, King of the universe;
You who create the fruit of the vine,

You who bring forth hope from anguish,

You who bring forth what was promised,

You who bring forth life from death.

WE DRINK THE CUP

A CANDLE IS EXTINGUISHED

For it was the Passover of God,

when God redeemed the people,

when God saved his chosen people.

And it is the Passover of God,

when God still redeems his people,

when God still saves his faithful people.

And the shouts of acclamation

and the silent shedding of tears

join mysteriously in celebration,

join as one across the years.

In this cruel, twisted fate

is the Passover of God;

for God still redeems his people,

for God saves his faithful ones.

THE FINAL CANDLE IS EXTINGUISHED

We step out in faith

we walk forth in hope

treading the path before us

walking into life as his follow ers …

WE LEAVE TO THE MUSIC of Wait for the Lord

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Song playlist

0 As people gather, a selection of quiet meditative songs and chants

1 Bless the Lord my soul

2 Hosanna, hosanna

3 Laudate dominum

4 Jesus, remember me

5 Stay with me

6 Be still and know

7 Eat this bread

8 Wait for the Lord

Tables

1 In the Foyer, with communion elements. White

2 The Road. Green. Branches, cloaks

3, 4 The Room. Purple. Each has a cup and plate

5 The Garden. Red. Sword.

6 The Hill. Black. Cross.

7 In the Foyer. White. Broken cups and plates with elements