He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred [methistēmi] us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,
Colossians 1:13 ESV
- “He was transferred from San Quentin prison to another one.”
- “The money was transferred from one bank account to another.”
- “The student transferred his college credits from one institution to another.”
Common to all of these phrases and the verse above, is the idea of something or someone moving “from” or “out of,” and going “to” somewhere else. In his book, The Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus (37-100 AD) attempted to write the history of the world from a Jewish standpoint, likely for his Roman benefactors. His book helpfully gives us some background understanding of the word ‘transfer’ as well. This short article will examine Colossians 1:13, and especially the word ‘transfer’ and draw some conclusions as to how it speaks to forming a Biblical Missiology.
Transferring people as a political strategy:
In the Ancient Near East it was a known phenomenon that a victorious monarch would move a group of people from their conquered home-land to another place to be re-settled. It was also a way to squelch political unrest. In a fashion, Yahweh did this with the people of Israel after he subdued Egypt, and then he transferred them to the land of Canaan. The objective was to ensure loyalty to the victorious monarch, and to distance the conquered people from their original homeland.
Josephus recounts the story the king of Assyria named Tiglath-Pileser and his victory over Israel. In his account he uses the very same Greek word (methistēmi) to describe their forced displacement. The account reads:
… when he [Tiglath-Pileser] had made an expedition against the Israelites, and had overrun all the land of Gilead, and the region beyond Jordan, and the adjoining country, which is called Galilee, and Kadesh, and Hazor, he made the inhabitants prisoners, and transplanted (methistēmi) them into his own kingdom.
Antiquities 9: 235
In another episode, Josephus recounts a letter from King Antiochus to Zeuxis, his father. The son reports on his strategy for dealing with political unrest, by means of a forced deportation and some scholars surmise that the descendants of some of these Jews might have eventually joined the church at Colossae. The letter reads:
Having been informed that a sedition is arisen in Lydia and Phrygia, I thought that matter required great care; and upon advising with my friends what was fit to be done, it hath been thought proper to remove two thousand families of Jews, with their effects, out of Mesopotamia and Babylon, unto the castles and places that lie most convenient…
As well, for Paul’s audience at Colossae, the phenomenon of moving about people would not have struck them as strange, as both Corinth and Philippi were settled as Roman colonies. Thus with some license, the commentator J.B. Lightfoot renders this verse as “He transplanted us thence, and settled us as free colonists and citizens in the kingdom of His Son.”
The New Testament use of ‘transferred’
When Jesus told the parable of the unrighteous steward in Luke 16, the fellow muses and says (v.4) ” I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed (methistēmi) from management, people may receive me into their houses.” Like Colossians 1:13, a definite change of status and place is implied. This same word for being ‘removed’ is used to describe the way that King Saul was deposed from his kingdom and replaced with King David (Acts 13:22). Just prior to the riot at Ephesus, Paul is accused of turning away many people from their former worship by “saying that gods made with hands are not gods” (Acts 19:26). Finally, the word is used by Paul in the well-known ‘love’ chapter of 1 Cor. 13 to describe removing mountains.
In the New Testament, the word methistēmi is used to describe a definite change of status or place. The sense seems to be uni-directional. That is to say, the direction is always “from” something, “to” something. This is also the idea that is expressed in Jospehus’ use of the word, namely that people are transferred from one place and moved to another.
Colossians 1: 13
He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred [methistēmi] us to the kingdom of his beloved Son
Paul describes the change of life experienced by the church at Colossae at their conversion by means of powerful word pictures. In language that recalls the Exodus, he shows their movement out of the clutches of a tyrannical despot characterized by his rule of spiritual darkness into another domain. The new domain is characterized by light (v. 12) and all of the benefits of familial love expressed in the words ‘Father’ (v. 12) and ‘Son’ (v. 13).
The strong word that Paul uses for the deliverance [Gk. ruomai] that God executes carries the sense of a rescue from danger and it is also found in Exodus 6:6. God is the rescuer and He brings the rescued to Himself. Just as in the Exodus story, the Colossians were are found under the power of a regime from which they could not free themselves. In this regime they were ‘alienated,’ ‘hostile,’ and ‘doing evil deeds’ (1:21) and were ‘dead in their trespasses’ (2:13). This regime is referred to in Luke 22:53 as ‘the power of darkness’ and it refers to the Satanic bondage which enslaves all humans before their rescue by Christ’s blood. Paul includes himself with his audience by the use of the word ‘us’ as he too knows his past deliverance and transfer and its continued effects in his life (cf. Paul’s defense before Agrippa in Acts 26).
The transfer is decisive. Just as Josephus describes the displacement or dislocation of captive peoples, now with an ironic twist, the captive peoples are those who have been captured by the love of Christ. They are transferred to a new regime in which the beloved Son of the Father is the King. This is a one-way transfer, just as the Israelites had a one-way transfer out of Egypt. The use of light metaphors underscores the idea even more—out of darkness and into marvellous light–or as John 1:5 reads: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (cf. 1 Pet. 2:9). It is in this kingdom of light that redemption and the forgiveness of sins (v. 14) is known.
For good reason, then Paul can describe another church in Asia Minor as “you were once darkness” (Ephesians 5:8). Not only were they enslaved by the regime of darkness, they actually contributed to it themselves. They too are given the exhortation to “leave” (Eph. 4:17,22).
To these “saints” at Colossae (1:2) as he calls them, Paul exhorts them to live as those people who have indeed been ‘transferred’ even with the benefits of a new inheritance (v. 12) and not to remain stuck in their former lives to which they had died (2:20; 3:3,9).
What if the bank teller told you, “The money was said to be transferred to your account, but it really wasn’t. It just remained in its old place?” Likely you would retort with angry words, and ask what kind of a bank this is. You might insist that what they call a transfer is no transfer at all, but only some slippery words. Can those who are said to be in the in the kingdom of the Son who the Father loves afford slippery words?
Questions for reflection:
1. The verse contains strong contrasts between evil tyranny and loving Lordship. Does it make you want to worship the True Victor even more?
2. Paul strongly asserts the uni-directional movement from one kingdom to another. Can you think of missional models that try to blur or even prevent this movement?
3. Paul leaves no question in the reader’s mind as to his view of those not in Christ, as either being enslaved in a kingdom of darkness, or being sources of darkness themselves. Isn’t Paul being awfully harsh here?