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Untangling the Saints—Cross Cultural Evangelism in Colossians 1

Jerusalem David Poe Flickr

There’s a weird thing that happens when you’re a long term Bible nerd. There are certain passages—maybe just a verse or a sentence—that simply don’t make sense. But we hesitate to say so; in my case, I assume everyone else already ‘gets it’ and I’ll catch on eventually. Or not. 

There’s a weird thing that happens when you’re a long term Bible nerd. There are certain passages that simply don’t make sense.

There’s an example in the NIV translation of Colossians 1:27, which we’ll pick up for context from verse 25:-

25 I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness— 26 the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. 27 To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (NIV, 2011)

See the problem? “To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles…” just messes with my head. Who is the target of God’s revelation? Is God making his mystery known "to them”—whoever “they” are? Or “among the Gentiles”? Semantically, it’s messy. But when I quiz my exegetical friends, they’re happy enough to overlook the puzzle and read on. 

Saints? What Saints?

Let’s pause for a short historical detour. When DWB Robinson suggested in 1963 that the term the saints had particular reference to Jewish Christians, there was a muted response. Lack of precision in defining oi hagioi is reflected in the way the term is inconsistently translated, with stylistic considerations leading NIV translators to vary between terms like “God’s people,” “The Lord’s people”, or “his holy people.” Against Robinson, the term is almost always generalised to mean “all Christians.”

Robinson’s survey of “the Saints” in the Gospels, Acts, Revelation and Epistles, was extensive, leading him to conclude that the term originally signified “the members of the primitive Jewish church of Judea, especially of Jerusalem.” (Robinson, Selected Works Vol1 161) 

More recent analysis of Galatians, Ephesians and Colossians adds support to Robinson’s position, with Paul’s use of the pronouns “we‟ and “you” aligning with “we Saints” and “you Gentile Christians.”

So what of our hard-to-read verses from Colossians 1? Even if you’re not yet persuaded about who they are, let’s replace “the Lord’s people” with “the Saints” in verse 26; then notice the interplay with “the Gentiles” in the following verse. 

the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the [Jewish] Saints…

 [To(?) them] God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery,

From God, Through the Jews, to Us

At this point a glimmer of my Bible College greek reminded me that the ‘instrumental dative’ equally allows “to them” to be translated “by or through them.” Trust me. It’s the same. So try reading it that way, and you’ll suddenly see Paul spelling out the dynamics of first century evangelism. The mystery that God has first revealed to the Saints—Jewish Christians—is now being made known to the Gentile Christians by those Jewish believers. It’s Paul’s gospel idea of cross-cultural evangelism, and it was actually happening. And for that we Gentile Christians should be eternally thankful. 


Photos: David Poe (body), Smoochi (head); flickr

Phil Campbell serves as a Presbyterian pastor with his wife Louise in Brisbane, and is co-author of the preaching primer Saving Eutychus. In his spare time he is learning to play Banjo. Pretty hipster for an old guy.

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