Paul in his letter to the Christians at Colosse defines a number of ethical principles in chapter 3 that should characterize followers of Jesus. Along with the principles he describes motivations and empowerments available to believers to enable them actually to realize these expectations. In 3:15 he explains that “the peace of the Messiah” should be “acting as arbiter (brabeuetō) in your hearts.” He urges them in the following verse to “let the word of the Messiah take up residence in you richly….” Paul anticipates a vigorous interaction between the Messiah and his followers as they are transformed into the image of their creator (3:9-10). Paul also used a compound form of this verb in 2:18 as he warns these Christians “do not let anyone disqualify (katabrabeuetō).” These are the only occurrences of these verbs in the New Testament writings. The noun brabeion occurs in 1 Corinthians 9:24 within an athletic analogy.
The Jewish writers Philo and Josephus both used this verb frequently. We get a sense of the verb’s meaning “make a decision; direct, control” in Josephus (Antiquities 14.183) when he acknowledges that “the Deity decides (brabeuei) the changing fortunes of war.” A similar sense occurs in Josephus (Bellum 7.194) where he contends “it was, however, invariably the opportunity which, in the main, decided (ebrabeuen) the victory in favour of either side:…” The verb also is used by Josephus in contexts that describe the administration of justice. For example, in Antiquities 6.30 he describes the work of Samuel the prophet who “judged their causes and so continued for long to administer (ebrabeuen) perfect justice.” Describing the sedition of Absalom (Antiquities 7.196), Josephus says that “he won the good will of all by saying that if he himself had had this power, he would have dispensed (ebrabeusen) full and equal justice to them.” When Titus decided to build a containment wall around Jerusalem as part of his siege strategy, Josephus describes how the Roman officers and soldiers competed to win Caesar’s approval “and in the rivalry between the officers Caesar himself made the decision (ebrabeue)” (Bellum 5.503). Josephus narrates Goliath’s challenge for the conflict with Israel to be decided by duelling champions. “Give me one of your men to fight with me and the issue of the war shall be decided (brabeuthēsetai) by the single victor,..”(Antiquities 6.173). In an extended speech Moses petitions God to destroy Abiram and Datham, proving “that it is thy will that overrules (brabeuomenon) and brings everything to its end;..” (Antiquities 4.47).
In the case of Philo God “governs (brabeuei) the whole heaven and earth with justice” De Providentia, Frag.2.2). Philo describes the impartiality of justice as it “pronounces a judgment and decides (brabeuei) what is just” (Legum Allegoria 1.87). Again in Legum Allegoria 3.35 Philo considers the distasteful situation in which “the mind…shall have conceived the notion that it discerns all things, and decides (brabeuein) all things.” He affirms that if he has to serve on a jury he will “in all honesty award (brabeusō) what shall appear just” (De Iosepho 72). The authority that Moses exercises is given to him by the people “with the sanction (barbeuontos) and assent of God.” He compares the actions of the governor Flaccus to that Tiberius and Augustus who in their role as judges “awarded (ebrabeuon) what they thought to be just, influenced neither by hostility nor favour, but by what actually was the truth” (In Flaccum 106). The use of this verb in Philo indicates how it describes evaluation, making decisions, and governance.
In the Septuagint the verb occurs once in Wisdom of Solomon 10:12. The writer describes the actions of “wisdom” to protect the righteous person, i.e. Jacob, guarding him from enemies and “in his arduous contest she decided (ebrabeusen) in his favour.” The reference is to his wrestling match with the angel.
The cognate noun brabeion (1 Cor. 9:24) describes the prize that the winner of an athletic contest received. The context of 1 Cor. 9:24 plainly supports this sense, given the race analogy that Paul used. The use of the verb in Wisdom of Solomon 10:12 describes the wrestling match that Jacob had with the heavenly messenger. Wisdom decides that Jacob won the contest and thus functions as the one who judges the winner. However, the extensive use of this verb in Philo and Josephus with the sense of judge, decide, determine or arbitrate suggests that the etymological connection with the meaning “prize awarded” has lost much of its force, unless other terminology in the context draws explicit attention to this metaphorical sense (as occurs in 1 Cor. 9:24).
If this evaluation is correct, then Paul in Colossians 3:16 employs the verb to affirm that “the Messiah’s peace” should be exercising judgment and thus determining the believer’s response in all situations. There is no terminology in this context that suggests a contest of some kind is in view. The language is of “dressing” (v.12) or “taking up residence” (v.16). If we reference the use of the compound verb katabrabeuein (disqualify) in 2:18, the language in that context is linked with “judging” (v.16). There is no explicit indication of the action of an umpire disqualifying an athlete in that context. The meaning seems quite general.
Metaphorical meaning can “die” because words become used with a more general sense and the original metaphor expressed by the word no longer dominates the usual meaning.. I suspect that this is what has occurred in the usage of brabeuein in Colossians 3:15. In my opinion Paul urges these believers to let the Messiah and his empowerment for peace to hold sway in their lives and thus guide their behaviour. However, I do not think he necessarily is visualizing the Messiah’s peace acting like an umpire in some kind of contest.