What does Paul mean in Colossians 1:20 that Jesus’ death reconciled “all things on earth and in heaven” to God?

It’s helpful to first consider the overall context of 1:15-20. This section begins with the amazing statement that Jesus

“is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by Him and for Him.” (1:15-16)

Understanding the term “firstborn” here is important to understanding the reconciliation ministry of Jesus in 1:20. In Scripture “firstborn” can refer to birth chronology, but it can also be used to refer to “rank” or “status.” For example, Psalm 89 speaks of God’s covenant with David and His intention to elevate David’s descendent to the utmost preeminence:

“He will call out to Me, ‘You are my Father …’ I will … appoint him My firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth. I will maintain My love to him forever, and My covenant with him will never fail.” (vv. 26-28)

The psalmist’s designation of the exalted king as “firstborn” is parallel to Paul’s description of Jesus as “firstborn.” Paul, like the psalmist, also speaks of “the Kingdom of the Son He loves” in Colossians 1:13 (cf. Rev. 1:5). So Paul is concerned in Colossians 1:15-16 to emphasize that Jesus, as God and Creator, ranks preeminently over all things as the “firstborn,” the King of all creation. Yet while Jesus ranks as firstborn over creation due to His role as Creator, nevertheless, because of the Fall, there has been a rupture between the Creator and His creation. Thus Jesus’ incarnational mission included reconciling to God all things in heaven and on earth. Paul goes on to mention that Jesus is also

“the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything He might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through His blood, shed on the cross.” (1:18-20)

First, how did Christ reconcile all things on earth to God?

Paul defines part of the reconciled “all things” on earth as sinners like us being brought into a saving relationship with God:

“Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now He has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in His sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” (1:21-22)

However, in saying that Jesus reconciled all things on earth to God, Paul, like the other authors of Scripture, doesn’t believe that every person will be ultimately saved (3:6). That doesn’t deter him, however, from stressing our mission:

“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.” (4:5)

So how are the “other things” on earth reconciled to God?

There may be a parallel in Philippians 2:6-11. Like Colossians 1, Philippians 2 emphasizes the staggering concept of an incarnate God dying on a cross. Like Colossians 1:18-20, Philippians 2:5-11 notes that, as a result of Jesus’ Passion, the Father elevated His Son to a new level of pre-eminence that He somehow didn’t enjoy prior to the Cross. Like Colossians 1, Philippians 2 also speaks of Christ’s work on the Cross bringing about “universal” results:

“Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:9-11)

Although Paul notes that all will ultimately bow and confess that Jesus is Lord, he confirms that not everyone will be ultimately saved (Phil. 3:18-21). So what does Paul mean that “every tongue” will “confess that Jesus is Lord”? Certain phrases and concepts found in Philippians 2 suggest that Paul is applying Isaiah 45:23 to Jesus. Paul explicitly cites Isaiah 45:23 in Romans 14:10-12, a situation in which he speaks of everyone appearing before God’s judgment seat. Thus in Philippians 2 Paul likely indicates that the universal confession of Christ as Lord takes place in that future context. While unbelievers will ultimately be consigned to eternal punishment, it won’t be before they openly acknowledge the Lordship of the One who created them. So, Christ, as firstborn over creation, died to reconcile all things on earth to God in that He is elevated to a new realm of supremacy over them (Col. 1:15-20). The “all things on earth” may also include the created order itself as it too was impacted by the Fall (Gen. 3:17-18; Rom. 8:18-22).

Second, how did Christ reconcile all things in heaven to God?

Recall that Jesus created all things “in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities.” (1:16) Paul’s mention of heavenly, invisible things, along with the terms “powers, rulers, and authorities,” points to the realm of fallen angels. This is seen more explicitly elsewhere:

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph. 6:12)

While the fallen angels lost their original place in heaven (Rev. 12:7-9), until they meet their final doom, they have access to certain “tiers” in heaven (cf. Job 1-2). Yet Scripture is clear: the fallen angels will not be saved (Matt. 25:41; Jude 6; 2 Pet. 2:4; Rev. 20:10) So, what is the nature of Christ’s reconciliatory work towards them? Christ, as creator and firstborn over creation, died to reconcile them to God in that God elevated Christ to a new realm of supremacy over them: Jesus, “having disarmed the powers and authorities … made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” (Col 2:15; cf. John 12:30-31; Heb. 2:14-15; 1 John 3:8) Peter also notes that, following the Passion, Jesus went “into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to Him.” (1 Pet. 3:22)

As firstborn over all creation, Jesus reconciled some fallen humans into a saving relationship with God and He reconciled all earthly and heavenly things to God in that He is elevated to a new level of supremacy over them. While 1:20 is difficult to fully understand (cf. Deut. 29:29), rejoice in what we do understand: a holy God, against whom we rebelled, made “peace through His blood, shed on the cross” bringing some sinners such as us into His Kingdom and a relationship with Him! (1:13-14, 21-22)