What does Colossians 1:21 mean?
ESV: And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds,
NIV: Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.
NASB: And although you were previously alienated and hostile in attitude, engaged in evil deeds,
CSB: Once you were alienated and hostile in your minds as expressed in your evil actions.
NLT: This includes you who were once far away from God. You were his enemies, separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions.
KJV: And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled
This verse is the first of three (Colossians 1:21–23) which make a transition from speaking of Christ into a statement directly aimed at the Colossian Christians. Paul begins by speaking of their past, noting their condition before coming to know Christ. This is in no sense judgmental on Paul's part. In other letters, he speaks graphically about his own sinful, shameful past (1 Corinthians 15:9). This is a constant theme of the gospel: freedom from sin and transformation into a relationship with the living God (1 Corinthians 6:11; Ephesians 2:1–10).
Three traits of the Colossians' prior lives are revealed in this phrase. First, as unbelievers, they were "alienated." In other words, they were separated from God and did not belong to His family. Second, they lacked knowledge of God, and in fact stood opposed to Him. Third, not belonging to God and opposing Him led to evil actions. This sinful condition stands as the backdrop of the message of hope Paul proclaims for their lives in the next verse.
Colossians 1:15–23 is an extensive praise of Jesus Christ. In this passage, Paul explains that Jesus is eternal, just as God is eternal, and all created things were created by Him, and through Him, and for Him. After describing Jesus as absolutely supreme, Paul then explains that it was His sacrifice which allowed the Colossians—and all saved believers—to be reconciled to God.
In chapter 1, Paul introduces himself, along with his co-author Timothy. As he often does, Paul gives thanks for what he hears about the faith of the believers in Colossae. Paul includes a prayer for their growth and spiritual strength. The letter then transitions to praise of Jesus, describing Him as absolutely supreme. All created things were made through, by, and for Him. And, since it was His sacrifice which saved us from sin, we can have confidence in our eternal destiny.
Colossians chapter 1 is mostly focused on describing Christ as supreme. Jesus is not only the God of creation, He is the ultimate authority over all created things. The penalty for sin has been completely removed because of His perfect sacrifice. These are foundational ideas which Paul will use to set up his later points. In chapters 2, 3, and 4, Paul will explain why contrary claims are untrue, and show the right way for Christians to live out what we believe about Jesus.
The book of Colossians describes Christ as superior to all other teachers, faiths, and philosophies. In this letter, written from prison, Paul once again tackles false teachings. Among these errors are claims that Christians need to give up all physical enjoyments, that they should worship angels, and that they need to rely on the wisdom of an elite few. These problems are consistent with an ancient heresy known as Gnosticism. In response, Paul explains that Christ is supreme, and sufficient for our salvation.
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