Reconciliation—SO Much More Than We Have Thought!

Reconciliation—SO Much More Than We Have Thought!

[Based on a teaching given to Fellowship of the Way of Christ, June 2014]

I believe the most effective way to research a New Testament term is first to ask, (1) What does the New Testament Greek term mean in the Septuagint (the LXX)—the Greek version of the Old Testament that was the Bible of the people who wrote the New Testament? (2) Then we can ask, looking at the Hebrew text, What is the Old Testament theology behind the term?

The second study is intuitively obvious. But why the first? (1) It is rarely the case—except with highly concrete items such as water or finger—that a given word in one language will translate perfectly into another language without the translation’s having slightly (or even very) different connotations from the original. Example: a French person reading the word fromage immediately pictures something quite distinct from what a middle-class Mississippian imagines upon reading the word cheese; yet the most appropriate translation of fromage would probably be cheese. (2) The scholars who translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek in the couple of centuries before the Christian era could not avoid flavoring their translations according to their own linguistic and cultural and even theological understandings. Therefore the early church’s Bible, which was mainly the Greek Old Testament (not the Hebrew Old Testament), was rarely entirely congruent with the concepts underlying the original Hebrew documents. And it was the Greek Old Testament that principally informed the vocabulary of the writers of the New Testament.

To my surprise, I discovered that the second step was impossible in this case: There is no Old Testament history of the concept of reconciliation! Paul had to borrow not only the Greek terms for what we call reconciliation, but also their meanings, because the Old Testament basically doesn’t deal with the subject.

The Old Testament deals with forgiveness and atonement—which, of course, the New Testament also treats in highly expanded ways. But the Hebrew Bible does not significantly deal with the concepts behind Greek terms that are translated reconciliation (or something like it) in our English Bibles.


The (rather limited) biblical and extensive secular background

Only three Greek words underlie nearly all the biblical passages where the English word reconciliation (or something similar) is appropriate—all variants of the same root, the only differences being prepositional prefixes: καταλλάσσω katallassō, διαλλάσσω diallassō, and ἀποκαταλλάσσω apokatallassō. Because these three words appear to be largely interchangeable, there is no need to seek subtle reasons why one variant was used instead of another. While the terms occur in a handful of non-Pauline biblical documents, where their meaning has little theological import, Paul was the only one who used the terms in important theological contexts.

It seems that Paul almost single-handedly invented this theological concept, borrowing vocabulary from secular Greek culture in the process. We’ll return to Paul in a minute.

The idea of reconciliation had developed during the previous half millennium in Hellenistic culture—that is, the Greek culture that held sway over most of Mediterranean civilization well before the time of Jesus. There are numerous instances of the use of these terms by authors with whom we are familiar, e.g., Sophocles, Herodotus, Euripides, Thucydides, Xenophon, and Aristotle. In fact, one of the principal characters in Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata was a woman named Reconciliation (Διαλλαγή); and in some circles that became the title of the play. The vocabulary was used primarily (1) in diplomacy and (2) in interpersonal relationships.

In diplomacy, the idea of reconciliation was especially important around the end of the fifth century B.C., when hostilities of the second Peloponnesian war were winding down (and when Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata). Here’s how reconciliation worked in diplomacy: Aggressors who were losing or had lost a war would approach the nation or city state they had attacked, appealing for an end to hostilities and for restoration of normal, friendly relations between the two parties. Typically this would be done through an ambassador, and the appeal usually included assurances of affection and loyalty on the part of the former offender (which in this case, remember, are the “sinners”—the guys who started but lost the war); the appeal would very often include some kind of payment of reparations.**

In interpersonal relationships, the model was similar. Offenders would appeal to the parties they had injured for reconciliation, i.e., for a return of normal, friendly relations. The offenders would proclaim deep loyalty to the offendees, and in many cases would offer to pay reparations.

Note that in both diplomacy and in interpersonal dealings we are not talking merely about forgiveness. It is one thing for a nation or an individual to forgive an attacker; it is quite a leap to go from forgiveness to complete restoration of friendly relations.

Hellenistic Jewish culture viewed reconciliation largely in the same way as did the wider, pagan Hellenistic culture. The Jews tried to keep their lives separate from Hellenistic influence, and to a large extent they succeeded—yet it was impossible to totally prevent encroachment of the wider Greek-influenced civilization, and many aspects of Hellenism crept into Jewish thought. That happened, as it turns out rather fortuitously, with the concept of reconciliation. Something that Jewish culture added to this idea of reconciliation, however, was God. Even though the concept of reconciliation had been common in the broader Mediterranean culture for centuries, it had virtually never involved the gods or any other manifestations of spirituality. The gods were over in their own world, and it never occurred to anyone that gods might be involved in reconciliation.

That’s an important difference between pagan Hellenistic and Jewish Hellenistic thought.


The following passages from 1 Samuel, Sirach, and I Esdras illustrate interpersonal reconciliation in Hellenistic Jewish culture.

(Remember that Samuel, although written in Hebrew much earlier, was translated into Greek during Hellenistic times. Sirach was written in the early second century B.C., probably in Alexandria—a center of Hellenistic culture—by a Jerusalem-based Jewish scribe. It was likely written in Hebrew, then translated into Greek a couple of generations later. I Esdras is believed to have been written sometime in the period of the first century B.C. through the first century A.D. All Greek texts are quoted from Nestle-Aland 28th edition; English texts are from RSV.)

1 Samuel 29:4b  “Send the man back, that he may return to the place to which you have assigned him; he shall not go down with us to battle, lest in the battle he become an adversary to us. For how could this fellow reconcile (διαλλαγήσεται) himself to his lord? Would it not be with the heads of the men here?”

 Sirach 22:22a  If you have opened your mouth against your friend, do not worry, for reconciliation (διαλλαγή) is possible.

 Sirach 27:21  For a wound may be bandaged, and there is reconciliation (διαλλαγή) after abuse. . .

1 Esdras 4:31  At this the king would gaze at her with mouth agape. If she smiles at him, he laughs; if she loses her temper with him, he flatters her, that she may be reconciled (διαλλαγή) to him.


Here are passages from the Hellenized Jewish community referring to God-human reconciliation—a concept originating with Hellenized Jews.

(Second Maccabees was written in the late second century B.C., Third Maccabees probably in the late first century B.C.)

2 Maccabees 1:5  May he [i.e., God] hear your prayers and be reconciled (καταλλαγείη) to you and may he not forsake you in time of evil. [N.B. In this as well as the following four accounts, it is God who becomes reconciled to humans, not vice versa.]

2 Maccabees 5:20b  . . . what was forsaken in the wrath of the Almighty was restored again in all its glory when the great Lord became reconciled (καταλλαγῇ).

2 Maccabees 7:33  And if our living Lord is angry for a little while, to rebuke and discipline us, he will again be reconciled (καταλλαγήσεται) with his own servants. 

2 Maccabees 8:29  When they had done this, they made common supplication and besought the merciful Lord to be wholly reconciled (καταλλαγῆναι) with his servants.

3 Maccabees 5:13  Then the Jews, since they had escaped the appointed hour, praised their holy God and again begged him who is easily reconciled (εὐκατάλλακτον) to show the might of his all-powerful hand to the arrogant Gentiles.

In all these passages, the one being reconciled is God—who at least, according to Third Maccabees, is easily reconciled!

There are similar references in writings of the Jewish historian Josephus, who lived after Jesus. His understanding of καταλλάσσω katallassō, etc., was basically the same as in the rest of Hellenistic culture, both for interpersonal situations and in relationship to God.


Summary of reconciliation (iterations of καταλλάσσω katallassō) in Jewish thought

•Reconciliation is not a theme in the Old Testament.

•In secular Jewish contexts, the concept of “reconciliation” was essentially the same as in Greco-Roman literature: it involved the ending of hostilities and repair of friendships.

•In religious contexts, the predominant Jewish view was that it was God who needed to be reconciled to humanity, and that his anger/hostility toward humans could be soothed when people appealed to him through confession, prayer, and righteous deeds.

•In all cases, it was the obligation of the offenders (to translate into Christian vocabulary, the “sinners”) to appeal for reconciliation with the one whom they had offended, whether the latter was a mortal or was God. We see this even in Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 5:24 where he said, If your brother has something against you, go be reconciled (διαλλάγηθι) to him—before you seek reconciliation with God.

•Reconciliation often involved a sacrifice or payment or other significant consideration on the part of the offender.


Paul reversed everything!

In the New Testament, reconciliation as a theological construct is essentially limited to the writings of Paul. I cannot overemphasize the extent to which Paul’s gospel upended both Jewish and Greek notions of reconciliation (or whatever was intended when various versions of καταλλάσσω katallassō were used).

Everyone,  Jew and Greek, must have been familiar with the vocabulary. Paul, however, explicitly turned it on its head:

The one who has been offended (God) seeks out the offender. In both Jewish and Hellenistic culture, it was the other way around.

The one who has been offended (God) voluntarily, without constraint, pays an immeasurable reparation price. In both Jewish and Hellenistic culture, it was the other way around.

The offended party (God) fully accomplishes the reconciliation—without the offender’s having done anything! In both Jewish and Hellenistic culture, it was the offender who appealed for and worked diligently toward the reconciliation.

Now that we know the background of the vocabulary, and are able to catch the extraordinary reversals inherent within Paul’s statements, it’s time to read what he says about reconciliation. He even uses some of the standard secular vocabulary—e.g., calling believers “ambassadors” of reconciliation, and mentioning the cessation of “hostility,” and reversing roles concerning who “appeals” for the reconciliation. Virtually everything in Paul’s basic understanding departs radically from the “human point of view” (2 Corinthians 5:16). First-century listeners were familiar with this vocabulary. People who heard these passages might well have gasped in shock and wonder at the realization that, as seems true in so many other ways, God’s culture is entirely different—“wholly other”—from the human way of doing things. (It’s helpful to remember that the main point of the familiar and often-misquoted passage from Isaiah 55, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” is that God’s thoughts and God’s ways are immeasurably more gracious and kind than ours!) This brand of reconciliation is jaw-droppingly gracious. This brand of reconciliation is such good news that it seems too good to be true—and yet it is true!

Romans 5 7Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. 8But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. 9Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies we were reconciled (κατηλλάγημεν) to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled (καταλλαγέντες), shall we be saved by his life. 11Not only so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received our reconciliation (καταλλαγην). . . 

Romans 11:15 For if [the Jews’] rejection means reconciliation (καταλλαγην) of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?

Ephesians 2:14-16 14For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, 15by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16and might reconcile (ἀποκαταλλάξῃ) us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.

Colossians 1 19For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him to reconcile (ἀποκαταλλάξαι) to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

Colossians 1  21And you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22he has now reconciled (ἀποκατήλλαξεν) in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him. . .

Now for the scandalously encouraging passage where Paul throws it all together:

2 Corinthians 5 14For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. 16From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer. 17Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. 18All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled (καταλλάξαντος) us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation (καταλλαγῆς); 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling (καταλλάσσων) the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation (καταλλαγῆς). 20So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled (καταλλάγητε) to God.

**After reading II Corinthians 5:14-20, please go back and reread the double-asterisked paragraph—paragraph #7 if you ignore the centered statement “It seems that Paul. . .” I think you’ll find that material as well as the 2 Corinthians passage much more poignant now that you understand the terminology.


The overall picture

Let’s look now at the entire sweep of biblical history and theology in order to grasp the full significance of reconciliation.

I often find answers to my deepest theological questions in Genesis 1-3 and in the last few chapters of Revelation. That’s because in Genesis we see how God intended things to be when he created the cosmos and humankind. At the end of Revelation, we see what God intends to have once this present battle with darkness has concluded (spoiler alert: the Genesis and Revelation passages are basically in agreement). We can be assured that our mighty and gracious God will have what he wants!

There’s an important clue about reconciliation in Genesis 3. After the humans sinned, God came looking for them, even calling out to them. The writer of Genesis was no unsophisticated dummy. He had no “primitive” idea that God didn’t know where the humans were or what they had done. He was making a point: The sovereign God, creator of human beings and creator of all things, was concerned about the humans and wanted to be with them in spite of their sin. It was they who hid from him, not the other way around.

In the last chapters of Revelation, we discover what God had in mind all along—and that is marriage! The sovereign God who created human beings was determined to have creatures who were very, very much like himself: creative, moral, loving, adventurous, capable of original thought, imbued with passion. He was determined to have an intimate, may I even say erotic, relationship with such creatures. And that’s what he is going to have because at the end of scripture, when God is describing what he will have accomplished in the end, it’s the marriage of the Lamb with his bride. That is the ultimate goal of reconciliation.

The Old Testament—while not dealing directly with reconciliation as the pagan Hellenists as well as Jewish Hellenists understood it, and in fact as English speakers similarly understand it today—laid the groundwork with ideas of atonement and forgiveness. But it remained for the creator God to himself become incarnate into his creation before he was able to reveal exactly how far he was willing to go in order to reconcile human beings to himself (i.e., to pursue and win his Bride).

What are the implications of our having a “ministry of reconciliation”? We are urged to be reconciled to God. We are urged to minister reconciliation—to be “ambassadors”—between other human beings and God. We are urged to be reconciled to each other. The precedent has been established. The one who has been offended or sinned against takes the initiative. This is a game changer! God was the original one to do this! Paul makes it clear that this is what God has done, and this journey of gracious reconciliation reveals the heart of God.

That is not to say that it should not go the other way when appropriate. If I have offended someone else, as Jesus says in Matthew 5, I should go to that person and seek reconciliation. The game changer is Paul’s description of this new paradigm of reconciliation, which shows that the offended party, emulating God, has the privilege of going to the offender and saying, “I forgive you. I love you. What can I do to be reconciled to you?”

In all cases, whether dealing with reconciliation among humans or between humans and God, and whether God is taking the initiative or we are taking the initiative after people have hurt us, it is always the privilege of the offender not to agree to be reconciled. God won’t force us to enjoy the great marriage feast; and we can’t force other people to accept our overtures of reconciliation. But the attempt must be made. That is our calling as Christians.