One of the joys of knowing Greek is being able to prepare sermons and classes from the original text of the New Testament. It uncovers another layer of insight and depth that the English simply doesn’t afford, or perhaps even obfuscates. I ran across one of these gems this past week as I was preparing for my sermon on Colossians 1:18b-20. The first phrase of 1:20 is: καὶ δι᾽ αὐτοῦ ἀποκαταλλάξαι τὰ πάντα εἰς αὐτόν, which receives the following translation: and by (or through) Him to reconcile all things to Himself (NKJV, CSB, NASB, ESV, NIV, NET, with slight variations in word order).
What caught my attention was the phrase εἰς αὐτόν (eis auton — to Himself). Now, in a vacuum, the versions would make good sense; after all, Jesus’ work of reconciliation would naturally be to something or someone. Yet, what immediately came to mind was all the prepositional phrases followed by the third person singular pronoun in Colossians 1:15-20. Three times is the phrase ἐν αὐτῷ (en autô) used (1:16, 17, 19) — Creation was sourced in Him, it is sustained in Him, and the fullness of deity dwells in Him. We also see the phrase δι᾽ αὐτοῦ (di autou) twice (1:16, 20) — Creation was performed through/by Him, and the work of reconciliation is through/by Him.
So that leaves us with this third prepositional phrase: εἰς αὐτὸν (eis auton). It appears in vv. 16 and 20. In v. 16, all the versions are relatively uniform: All things were created through Him and for Him (εἰς αὐτὸν) (see NKJV, CSB, NASB, ESV, NIV, NET, NLT).
Note the difference in the translation of εἰς αὐτὸν between v. 16 and v. 20. Whereas the former universally receives for Him, the latter is rendered to Himself. In my estimation, the for Him gives the sense that creation was for His benefit, or for the purpose of glorifying Him (in Greek grammar, this is called the dative of advantage). It makes far more sense to me to replicate that translation and meaning of εἰς αὐτὸν in v. 20, as well: and by Him to reconcile all things for Himself. In other words, not only is our creation for the glory of Jesus, but our reconciliation, our becoming a new creation, is also for the glory of Jesus.
None of the commentaries I’ve consulted (Clark, Bruce, Moo, Hughes), or grammars (Wallace, BDF), devote hardly any time to the meaning of the phrase, let alone the translation. Not even BDAG gives this occurrence a listing (as is common for high-frequency words). I will say that in his book Prepositions and Theology, Murray J. Harris does highlight these two verses, and comes to a similar, though not identical, conclusion (he goes with a telic use of εἰς). So what basis do I have to suggest we go against all the major versions?
- The repetition of the exact same prepositional phrase in a passage where there are not only many significant prepositional phrases critical to the main argument of the passage, but copious parallels.* More than that, the phrases in which εἰς αὐτὸν occurs are strikingly similar, with their inclusion of δι᾽ αὐτοῦ, εἰς αὐτὸν, τὰ πάντα (all things), and their respective verbs (whether to create or to reconcile). Therefore, the translation and emphasis of εἰς αὐτὸν should be identical in both v. 16 and v. 20.
- It fits the main argument of the passage: Jesus is the preeminent One. He is the supreme One. He is the One in first place. He is the source, the agent, and the purpose. Indeed, it falls in line with the goal of salvation we see three times in Ephesians 1, that being that our salvation is brought about to the praise of his glory (1:6, 12, 14)!
Why is this important? Indeed, no doctrines are changed by this one translation of εἰς αὐτὸν. But if my line of thinking is correct, it is but one more verse among myriad that speak to the primary purpose for our deliverance and salvation as being the glory and exaltation of Jesus. Yes, we reap a good number of beautiful and wonderful benefits out of eternal life. But our lives, and all of history and creation, are for the purpose of bringing due honor to Jesus. And we need every reminder we can gather to keep this at the forefront of our minds! May the thoughts we think, the words we speak (and sing!), and may the tasks we endeavor, all be for Him.
* The passage is divided into two main sections — vv. 15-16 and vv. 18b-20, with an interlude of vv. 17-18a in the middle. I would argue there is a chiastic structure at work. In the A and A’ sections, both begin with He is followed by two characteristics or titles, with an occurrence of the notion of firstborn (πρωτότοκος) in each section. While A focuses on the physical creation, A’ focuses on reconciliation, or the spiritual new creation. Both make mention of things in heaven and things on earth. In B, Jesus is the source of cohesion of all physical things, in B’, He is the source of cohesion of all spiritual things, namely, the Church. The C line, the focal point of the passage, is in v. 17b: in Him all things consist, or in Him all things hold together.