117. God’s work that “Makes us Qualified” (hikanoun) — Colossians 1:12

The verb hikanoun occurs only two times in the New Testament and in both cases Paul was the author (2 Corinthians 3:6; Colossians 1:12). Paul incorporates the cognate noun hikanotēs once into the 2 Corinthians 3:5-6 context. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke-Acts, alongside of Paul’s letters also employ the adjective hikanos quite frequently, with dominant usage in Luke-Acts and Paul’s letters. This word group expresses ideas of sufficiency, adequacy and competency. The verb form belongs to the category of contract verbs, which often communicate a sense of causation, i.e. cause to be sufficient, adequate, competent.

Colossians 1:12 is part of an extended prayer (1:9-20) that Paul is offering on behalf of the believers he is addressing. In v. 12 he gives thanks “to the Father who has enabled (hikanōsanti) you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light (NRSV).” Other commonly used translations use the equivalent “who has qualified” (ESV, NIV, NASB). In 2 Corinthians 3:6 NRSV, ESV (this translation notes “who has made us sufficient” as an alternative rendering) and NIV render the verb “who has made us competent” and the NASB has “who has made us adequate.” In the Colossians context the subject of the verb is God, designated as “the Father,” who has taken some action (described by the verb) that gives the people who are the object (the textual witnesses vary between “you (plural)” or “us”) a “share of the inheritance of the holy ones[1] in the light.”  Can we define more precisely what action Paul assigns to “the Father” in using the participle tōi hikanōsanti?

The Greek translators of the Old Testament generally used hikanoun as the equivalent of a Hebrew idiom meaning “it is sufficient” (Numbers 16:7; Deuteronomy 1:6;2:3;3:26; 1 Kings 12:28;19:4; 1 Chronicles 21:15; Ezekiel 44:6;45:9). For example, in Deuteronomy 1:6 Moses recounts how God had told Israel it had spent long enough at Sinai and it was time to complete their journey to Canaan. The NRSV renders the Hebrew text as “You have stayed long enough at this mountain.” The Greek translator used “Let it be sufficient (hikanousthō) for you to live at this mountain.” Here the sufficiency relates to length of time.

In other Old Testament contexts “what is sufficient” may be the declaration of God’s will, i.e. God’s word is a sufficient response to the matter and ends debate (e.g. in Numbers 16:7 it is the choice of those who would serve God and in Deuteronomy 3:26 God tells Moses to stop speaking about his own entry into Canaan, because he will see the land, but not enter). Sometimes human sin has reached a sufficient level of heinousness (Ezekiel 44:6;45:9). In 1 Kings 12:28 Jeroboam’s makes two golden calves which he regards as sufficient, i.e. suitable?, for the Northern Kingdom’s worship needs, so the people do not need to travel to Jerusalem. Elijah cries to God that he has done what he can to oppose the wickedness of Ahab and “it is enough,” i.e. there is nothing more I can do. He pleads with God to take his life (1 Kings 19:4). In 1 Chronicles 21:15 God declares to the angel that it has killed enough Israelites as punishment for David’s sin.

When Jacob returns to Canaan, he is afraid to confront Esau. He prays to God and acknowledges that he left Canaan with only a rod in his hand and is now returning with so much wealth that he requires two camps to house his retainers. He confesses that whatever happens “it is sufficient for me because of all the righteousness and because of all the truth that you have brought about for your servant,…” (Genesis 32:11). There is a sense of satisfaction at God’s actions on his behalf, whatever the outcome may be. The verb in the Greek translation of Song of Songs 7:9(10) also has a sense of ‘satisfy,’ i.e. be sufficiently pleasing, as the writer extols the virtues of his beloved, whose facial features are “satisfying my lips and teeth.”[2] In Malachi 3:10 God encourages Israel to bring the appropriate sacrifices and tithe as the law requires, because He will “pour out upon you my blessing until you are satisfied (heōs tou hikanōthēnai).”

The use of this verb in Paul’s letters does not seem to equate with any of these senses found in the Greek Old Testament. In both Colossians and 2 Corinthians God is the specific subject of the verb, but this usage does not occur in the Greek Old Testament. In the Septuagint translation God may cause the action that prompts the writer or human agent to declare that “it is sufficient,” but we do not find the expression “God made sufficient, or enabled, or qualified, or made competent” someone to accomplish something. Rather in the New Testament the idiom for “it is sufficient” is a neuter form of the adjective hikanon, with an implied or expressed form of the verb to be (Luke 22:38 “They said, ‘Lord, look, here are two swords.’ He replied, ‘It is enough.’”; 2 Corinthians 2:6 “This punishment by the majority is enough for such a person.”). In fact, I cannot find any usage in Greek literature prior to Paul where a divine agent occurs as subject of this verb with the sense of “making someone competent/adequate” for some task. Perhaps Paul is breaking new lexical ground here.[3]

If this is the case, then what are the precedents that may have given Paul warrant for these dramatic assertions about God’s direct involvement in the life of his people to give them the competency to participate with him in his kingdom plans?  Paul’s description of God as “the father” who (in the interpretation of Lohse, Colossians and Philemon (Hermeneia, 1971), 34) “has authorized you” to have “a share in the lot of the holy ones in light,” is also quite exceptional, at least in Jewish terms.

New Testament scholar and Septuagintalist, C. H.Dodd in his book The Bible and the Greeks (1935, 13-16) linked Paul’s usage with one of the unusual Greek renderings of the names of God in the Old Testament. The Greek translators were not sure what the meaning of the divine name “El-Shaddai (שׁדי)” meant. Sometimes it was translated as “God” (Numbers 24:16; Isaiah 13:6); sometimes it was transliterated as saddai (Exodus 10:5); sometimes it was linked with God’s heavenly dwelling (Psalms 67:15; 90:1); in Job it is translated often as kyrios (lord; 6:4,14; 22:23,26; 24:1; 31:35) or as pantokrator (all powerful one; 16 times) and once as “the one who made all things”(Job 8:3);  and in other contexts it seems to be construed to mean “the God who is mine” (Exodus 6:3). However, there are several contexts in the Greek translation of Ruth (1:20,21) and in Origin’s additions to the Greek text of Job (21:15; 31:2; 39:32) and the textual tradition of Ezekiel (1:24) where this divine name is rendered by the adjective hikanos, “the sufficient one.” For example, in the Greek rendering of Ruth 1:20-21 Naomi has returned to Bethlehem and she tells the townspeople “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Bitter for the Sufficient One (ho hikanos) was greatly embittered against me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why do you call me Naomi when the Lord has abased me and the Sufficient One (ho hikanos) has maltreated me?” The parallelism in this text identifies “The Sufficient One” with Yahweh. The Greek translation[4] of Job 21:15 as revised by Origin asks “What is the Sufficient One (hikanos) that we should be subject to him…?”

In the writings of Philo, an earlier contemporary of Paul, we discover numerous places where he references this rendering of “Shaddai” as hikanos. Several times he states that “God is sufficient (heatōi hikanon) for himself.”[5] He is a self-contained being, needing no other creature, but for reasons known only to himself has in fact created other beings. C.H.Dodd presumes that Paul was also aware of this etymology and notes the repeated[6] use of these cognate terms in 2 Corinthians 3:5-6:

Not that we are competent (hikanoi) of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence (hikanotēs) is from God,   who has made us competent (hikanōsen) to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

In the context of 2 Corinthians[7] Paul compares and contrasts the covenant God established through Moses with the new covenant God has established through the Messiah Jesus. He notes how Moses’ face shone with God’s glory as a result of his interaction with God during these events. Despite all of Moses’ concerns about his lack of competence to serve God in this way (Exodus 3-4) and the negative reaction of Pharaoh to his demand that the king of Egypt release the Israelites (6:2-9), God made him competent both in terms of ability and authority. Note the use of El Shaddai in Exodus 6:3.  Similarly, Paul argues, God now through his Spirit, makes the followers of the Messiah competent – capable and authorized – to serve as “ministers of the new covenant.” God who is the all sufficient one makes those “in Christ” sufficient to serve him. In doing so God does not in any sense lose his all-sufficiency. 2 Corinthians was written perhaps 3 – 5 years before Paul wrote Colossians.

In Colossians 1:12 Paul describes the great transformation and new status that the Colossian believers have experienced because of God’s action in Christ. They have the potential to “be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,” to “bear fruit in every good work,” and to “be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power.” All of this enables them “to endure everything with patience.” These wonderful capacities and provisions given by God should produce thanksgiving (v.12) to God in the hearts and minds of the Colossian Christians. Just as a human father oversees the training and development of his son, such that he becomes competent in various ways and able to act in support of the household enterprises, so God, the father of each believer, can be trusted to build and develop the spiritual capacities of those in his family. The result is that such people “have a share in the lot/inheritance of the holy ones in the light.” Just as God made Israel qualified to be his covenant people and to enter into the Promised Land and occupy it in fulfilment of God’s covenant promise, so the followers of Messiah Jesus are now fully qualified to participate in the divine inheritance shared by his “holy ones.” This is contrasted with the prior state of being trapped in “the power of darkness” (1:13), from which God has rescued believers and redeemed them, forgiving their sins. The “hymn-like” passage in 1:15-20 explains why God is sufficient to make human beings qualified in Christ.

It did not matter to Paul what status these Colossian Christians possessed prior to their commitment to Jesus. Once they received the Gospel, God “qualified” them to be full participants among his people (‘the holy ones) both in this age and in the age to come. God has what it takes to do this.


i. Regardless of whether Paul had the equation of “Shaddai = Sufficient one” in mind, Scripture certainly demonstrates that God has sufficient power and authority to be King of Kings. How does God’s sufficiency find expression in your life today?ii

ii. If God makes us qualified and competent to serve as his representatives in this world, how is this demonstrated in practical terms? How does the Spirit figure into this experience? How has God qualified you to be a “minister of reconciliation?” Does this give you confidence in your service?

[1] There is also debate as to whether “the holy ones” refer to angelic beings or believers in the Messiah. Paul’s use of this term in Colossians tends towards “believers.”

[2] The rendering in A New English Translation of the Septuagint (p.665) is “satisfying lips and teeth,” omitting the personal pronoun mou and leaving it ambiguous as to whom the lips and teeth belong – the lover or the beloved.

[3] Philo did not use the verb in his writings.

[4] To be more exact this verse is an addition by Origin to represent the Hebrew text of his day, but as far as we can tell was not included in the original translation of Job. We find a similar revision in Greek Ezekiel 1:24 as Origin revised the Greek text to match the Hebrew text he was using. When Origin did this work in Job and Ezekiel in the third century AD, he used other Greek translations of the Old Testament that reflected traditions extending back into the first century AD or perhaps earlier in some cases. It is a complicated issue. These other translations were made by Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotion who regularly rendered this divine name as hikanos.

[5] Philo, De Mutatione Nominum 27,46; Legum Allegoria I.44. C. Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, Vol. 2  (Peabody, MASS: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 220 suggests that “This Philoxonian axiom is probably inspired by the translation errors of the LXX [Septuagint], which took Shaddai to mean “the sufficient one” as a designation of the “All-Powerful” God….”

[6] Repetition is a device that emphasizes an idea.

[7] In 2 Corinthians 2:16 as he reflects upon the function of believers as “the aroma Christ,” Paul asks “who is sufficient (hikanos) for these things?” The description in 2 Corinthians 3:5-6 responds to this question. He goes on to say in 4:6 that “it is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” And then in 5:18 he affirms that God “has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”