…holy, without blemish, and blameless before Him… - Colossians 1:22b (NET)
In Paul’s Ephesian letter, as he rounds out his words to those that were considered to be strangers and enemies in need of reconciliation and redemptive inclusion into the assembly of God’s covenant people that sprang into existence with Abraham (2:11-20), Paul writes “So then you are no longer foreigners and noncitizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone. In Him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you are also being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (2:19-22). In assessing a bit of the thematic unity across Paul’s letters, we can see that this fits quite nicely with the Temple language that is subtly employed in verse twenty-two of Colossians one.
At first glance, one might be tempted to question the legitimacy of the assertion that there is Temple language to be found in Colossians. Admittedly, on the surface it appears to be a bit of an unwarranted leap. However, if we recognize the parallels between the second chapter of Ephesians and the first chapter of Colossians, acknowledging it as something of an unspoken gloss on what we find in that first chapter, then we are quite safe in treading this theoretical path.
What is it in Colossians’ first chapter that may put us in mind of the Temple? Specifically, what may put us in mind of Temple in conjunction with Paul’s attempts at opening wide the gates of the covenant to all peoples? It could be suggested that a leading contender for this role would be the words that close out the twenty-second verse of the first chapter, which are “to present you holy, without blemish, and blameless before Him” (1:22b). Let us note what precedes these words, in which Paul writes “And you were at one time strangers and enemies in your minds as expressed through your evil deeds, but now He has reconciled you by His physical body through death” (1:21-22a). This parallels nicely with Paul’s language in the second chapter of Ephesians.
The construct that is developed in conjunction with parallel in Ephesians then becomes increasingly important as a means to penetrate into Paul’s thinking and the issues which he is addressing in nearly all of the churches with which he has contact, and it is worth quoting at length: “you were at that time without the Messiah, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He is our peace, the one who made both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility… and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed” (2:12-14,16).
The similarities between the two citations should be quite obvious. Given that, it is not at all unreasonable to suspect that the similitude will continue, especially as it appears to be an unbroken stream of thought that results in Paul’s talk of the church as the Temple, with Gentiles obviously included in those that compose the Temple. The same can be said of Colossians, in that it is an unbroken stream of thought that has Paul moving from strangers, foreigners, reconciliation, and death, to a holy, blemish-less and blameless presentation before Him (Jesus presenting His new covenant people, made up of people from all nations, before Israel’s Creator God). Though there is no explicit mention of Temple or church, as we see in Ephesians, the talk of holy, without blemish, and blamelessness in presentation that flows directly from reconciliation, and which occupies the same space reserved for Temple talk in Ephesians, serves as a functional allusion to the Temple. How so?
In addressing this question, we first revert to the Levitical code. In the twenty-first chapter of Leviticus, we see restrictions placed upon the priesthood, who are those that could serve in the Temple. Beginning in verse sixteen we read: “The Lord God spoke to Moses: ‘Tell Aaron, “No man from your descendants throughout their generations who has a physical flaw is to approach to present the food of his God.”’” (21:16-17) Notice the use of “present,” which also shows up in our key verse in Colossians that we believe to be alluding to the Temple. Continuing, “Certainly no man who has a physical flaw is to approach: a blind man, or one who is lame, or one with a slit nose, or a limb too long, or a man who has had a broken leg or arm, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or one with a spot in his eye, or a festering eruption, or a feverish rash, or a crushed testicle. No man from the descendants of Aaron the priest who has a physical flaw may step forward to present the Lord’s gifts; he has a physical flaw, so he must not step forward to present the food of his God. He may eat both the most holy and the holy food of his God, but he must not go into the veil-canopy or step forward to the altar because he has a physical flaw. Thus he must not profane My holy places, for I am the Lord who sanctifies them” (21:18-23).
Certainly, it is with little difficulty that we compare the language here with Paul’s insistence that Jesus has presented those that were previously looked upon as completely unworthy, as described here in the Leviticus passage, as “holy, without blemish, and blameless.” Of course, this is also the language of animals offered in sacrifice, which can lead to an equally valid discussion of the sacrificial nature of the Christian life and of unity with the one sacrificed. However, as the context deals with the inclusion of people under the covenant, the application can and should be here restricted to people and their entrance upon the covenant (their justification). Importantly, in a period of time in which Gentiles (unholy, blemished, blameless) were not allowed to enter in to the Temple proper, Paul is insistent (via Ephesians), that they not only enter into the Temple, but that they are a fundamental component of the Temple of God itself.