118.”Reconciling (apokatallassein ) all things to himself” (Col. 1:20)

Paul is the New Testament author who explores the concept of reconciliation most fully, using the verb katallassō[1]and the cognate noun katallagē[2] to express this concept in his letters to the Roman and Corinthian churches. The meaning of the simple verb allassō is to change or exchange and when applied to political or relational situations implies exchanging hostility for peace or friendship. This terminology often occurs in political situations where hostile relations between rulers or people groups, usually accompanied by war or threats of war, are resolved either before or after conflict has occurred.

In one context (1 Corinthians 7:11) we sense what the verb means in a non-religious context. Paul is discussing how a Christian husband and wife should act within the marital relationship when conflict occurs. If a separation[3] has happened between the couple in their Christian state, then the female Christian spouse according to Paul’s instructions should either

a) remain agamos (unmarried); or

b) be reconciled (katallagētō) to her husband.

The verb in this context defines restoration of a fractured marital relationship among two believers.[4] Wallace suggests that passive imperatives (such as katallagētō in this context) may have a causative/permissive sense, i.e. allow/permit yourself.[5] This suggests a sense in vs. 11 for katallagētō such as “allow/permit yourself to be reconciled to your husband.” Whether this means ‘tolerate’ this or ‘ask’ that it be done cannot be determined except from details in the context.

In all other contexts where this verb occurs in Paul’s letters God is the subject of the active forms and human beings the subjects of the passive forms. In other words God does not become reconciled, rather He acts to reconcile human beings to Himself. For Paul God is always the primary actor in reconciliation, making it possible for humans to experience the transformation necessary to re-engage God. In these contexts (i.e. Romans and 2 Corinthians) Paul used various terms that describe hostile relationships (echthrai, asebeis, hamartōloi) that exist between God and human beings, who live in the dominion of Satan, and that generate within God an avenging wrath. The Messiah Jesus serves as the means God uses to provide opportunity of reconciliation for people, i.e. to find rescue from his avenging wrath. It is the Messiah’s death as propitiatory and expiatory sacrifice that enables this peace and restoration of relationship in the context of new creation.

The author of 2 Maccabees, writing about a century prior to Paul, used this terminology in various religious contexts. The composition opens by citing a letter written by Jews in Jerusalem to Jews in Egypt, encouraging them to faithful obedience to the law. “May he [God] heed your prayers and be reconciled (katallageiē) to you,…” (1:5). The author explains the ability of Antiochus, the Seleucid king, to plunder the temple as due to the sins of the residents of Jerusalem (5:17) and so God did not extend his protection to the temple. However, the temple participated in the benefits of restoration when “what was forsaken in the wrath of the Almighty was restored again in all its glory when the great Lord became reconciled (katallagēi)” (5:20). The essential principle is expressed succinctly in 2 Maccabees 7:33: “And if our living Lord is angry for  a little while, to rebuke and discipline us, he will again be reconciled (katallagēsetai) with his own slaves.” Similarly we read, after Judas Maccabeus had successfully defeated the Seleucid general Nikanor in battle, that he led the Jewish forces to implore “the merciful Lord to be wholly reconciled (katallagēnai) with his slaves” (8:29). In contrast with Paul’s expression (written about a century later) the author of 2 Maccabees speaks of God as being the party that needs to be reconciled, because human action has alienated him. Sin remains the defined cause of the breach in relations and the repentant petitions of Jewish people hopefully prompt God to respond and to be willing to “be reconciled.” In Paul’s construction it is God that takes the initiative to reconcile human beings to himself, because humans had no means to generate reconciliation with God on their initiative.

Scholars suppose that Paul created the cognate, compound verb apokatallassō[6] because there are no occurrences prior to his letters or uses by non-Christian writers subsequently. The addition of the preposition apo- to the verb katallassō may add a perfective sense, i.e. thoroughly reconciled.[7] Where Paul used composite verbs incorporating two prepositions (here they are apo– and kata-), the sense of the shorter form tends to be intensified.[8] Some argue that the addition of apo– expresses the idea of “the re-establishment of a previously existing peace,”[9] but the application of this verb in Ephesians 2 to the Gentiles would eliminate this possibility because they had no previous, explicit share in the covenants, even though this was anticipated.

Paul’s expression in Ephesians 2:16 is unique in that the Messiah is the subject of the verb, but the Messiah represents God in every sense and so there is no contradiction with other contexts – reconciliation is still God’s work. Paul explicitly associates reconciliation with peace-making (poiōn eirēnēn), which explains how the Messiah “create[d] in himself one new man out of the two.” If there is an intensification of the verbal idea by the addition of apo-, then Paul may be emphasizing, to the astonishment of his readers, that the separation of Jew and Gentile mandated in the old covenant, no longer pertains because of the sacrificial work of the Messiah. Whether the enmity (echthran) mentioned in v.16 is between God and humans or between Jews and Gentiles is unclear, but probably includes both divine and human elements. Vs. 17 defines the mission of the Messiah in terms of reconciliation, because he “proclaimed as good news (euēggelisato) peace to you who were distant and peace to you who were near” and this peace, if embraced, grants both groups equal access “in one Spirit to the Father.”

Paul develops this same theme in Colossians 1:21-22. Using temporal adverbs (pote…nuni de — “at one time…but now”), he contrasts the former state of estrangement and hostility (ontas apēllotriōmenous kai echthrous) with the current situation in which the Messiah (or the subject equally could be God) “has reconciled you in his physical body through death.” The alienation arises from a sin-dominated mindset that generates evil actions. Again the integral connection between the death of the Messiah on the cross and God’s action to initiate reconciliation is unmistakable. Without the incarnate Messiah’s death there is no offer of divine reconciliation, either to Jew or to non-Jew. The result intended by this act of reconciliation is “to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” The verb “to present” (parastēsai) occurs in sacred contexts where sacrifices are offered, as well as in judicial or royal court proceedings where people are “presented.” The three adjectives Paul chooses to describe the new state of these reconciled people (holy, without blemish, free from accusation) seem to combine both aspects. God’s reconciled people become both acceptable sacrifice and suitable servant. Perhaps again Paul’s choice of apokatallasein (reconcile) in this context emphasizes the extent to which God has gone to secure this changed state and the enormous transformation it has generated in the lives of these non-Jewish people.

In both Ephesians 2:16 and Colossians 1:21-22 Paul speaks to the remarkable change in the status of “gentiles,” i.e. non-Jews, through the Messiah’s work. Within Jewish theology such action by God through the Messiah usually was not considered a present activity in Paul’s day. Non-Jews at some point in the eschatological future may acknowledge God’s action in the restored Jewish people and may even participate to some degree in the blessings God gives to his people, but this would only come after significant conflict with the nations. Paul affirms that God in Messiah Jesus and particularly through his crucifixion has already started this work of reconciling non-Jews to himself and inviting them into his people as full partners alongside of Jewish believers in the Messiah. This is radical stuff.

The other context where this verb occurs is Colossians 1:20, which of course is linked with the immediately following usage in vv. 21-22. However, Paul gives the scope of the work of reconciliation a cosmic dimension. The New International Version (2011) rendered it as “and through him to reconcile (apokatallaxai) to himself all things (ta panta), whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace (eirēnopoiēsas) through his blood, shed on the cross.”[10] The place where the act enabling reconciliation occurred is the cross and involves the Messiah’s death. Colossians 2:15 describes the significance of this event in which the Messiah disarmed the powers and authorities and “make a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” The outcome is “peacemaking.” What is extraordinary here is the scope of the reconciliation effected, i.e. the entire cosmos is affected.

One of the significant questions raised by Paul’s use of this term is this:  does God’s act of reconciliation result in the salvation of all Jews, non-Jews, and “things in heaven?” In other words are his statements grounds for belief that eventually all created beings, human and spiritual, will enjoy salvation? Does peace-making imply participation in salvation for all? Such a complex question deserves serious treatment, which we cannot provide in the scope of this brief article. However, I would suggest several perspectives that help us to grapple with this question:

  1. In the human sphere when a king makes provision for peace with a hostile nation, the opponents have to decide whether or not they will embrace that peace or reject it and continue to resist by some means. Similarly, the fact that God has made complete provision for reconciliation of all things, does not mean that all beings will accept his provision. Without their acceptance of God’s offer, they will not experience this provision.
  2. Within the full context of Scripture we read of Satan and his supporters being consigned to the lake of fire in the final judgment, which indicates that they have not accepted and will not accept in the future the peace that God has offered.

God makes reconciliation possible in and through the cross-work of the Messiah Jesus. The use of the aorist tense form (participle in the first instance and indicative in the second) indicates that Paul expressed God’s action as undefined, apart from additional information in the sentence. Whether reconciliation has begun, been accomplished or been applied repeatedly must be determined from other contextual factors. In v. 22 Paul says that  the Colossian Christians have already experienced reconciliation. The evidence that human beings have embraced this reconciliation is the personal presence of the Holy Spirit resident within and this is something that

The gospel presents God’s offer of reconciliation, but human beings have to repent of their sinful behaviour and ask for God’s forgiveness in Christ before they can enjoy peace with God. Paul describes the presentation of the gospel as the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18) which God has given to his people. The appeal in this message is for people to “be reconciled with God” (2 Corinthians 5:20). Paul’s message indicates that the work of the Messiah at Calvary that makes provision for reconciliation is not automatically applied to every human being. People have to be willing “to receive God’s grace.”


i. how does the “ministry of reconciliation” become active in your life as a follower of Jesus?

ii. how does the language of hostility and estrangement define for us today the human condition outside of the Messiah?

iii. if God’s offer of reconciliation is based upon the Messiah’s death on the cross, what does this suggest about the significance of the cross and the meaning of the Messiah’s death?


[1] Romans 5:10(2x); 1 Corinthians 7:11; 2 Corinthians 5:18,19,20.

[2] Romans 5:11; 11:15; 2 Corinthians 5:18,19.

[3] For the use of this verb see Mark 10:11-12 (chōristhēi).

[4] C. Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, Vol. 2 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 264 references a papyrus dated to 124 A.D. which describes remarriage between two Jews in these terms: “Now the same Elaios son of Simon agrees to reconcile (katallaxei) anew and to take back the same Salome…as wedded wife.” Compare the use of the similar compound diallassein in Greek Judges 19:2-3 where the Levite goes after his concubine in order to “reconcile (tou diallaxai) her to him.”

[5] D.B.Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), 440-441.

[6] Found in Ephesians 2:16; Colossians 1:20,22.

[7] J. H. Moulton, Grammar of New Testament Greek. Vol. II. Accidence and Word Formation (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1968 reprint), 298. “…quite one-third of the NT composita have perfective force more or less clearly recognisable.”

[8] M. Barth, Ephesians 1-3. Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1974), 265.

[9] Ibid.

[10] There is no change with the text of NIV 1973.

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