The reason why Jesus came into our world was to function as the achiever of reconciliation. Of course, reconciliation is required only in situations where there are divisions, separations and hostilities.
What does Paul mean by the all things that will be reconciled through Jesus? The apostle does not mean everything in the universe. For example, he does not have in mind warring earthly factions who sign a peace treaty. Such countries may have agreed to stop fighting, bur may retail an inner hostility to their previous foes. Reconciliation is more than the absence of conflict, it includes the restoration of fellowship. Nor does he mean that fallen angels and impenitent sinners will be reconciled – elsewhere he makes clear that they will not.
The ‘all things’ is probably a reference to the physical universe, as Paul clearly teaches in Romans 8. The creation has been adversely affected by the fall of humanity, but it will share in the restoration procured by Jesus. There is a sense in which the creation is opposed to man, it is a dangerous place for him, with death and other troubles always an ongoing possibility. But the environment will yet be peaceful for ever.
It is straightforward to identify the ones on earth who were opposed to God – they were human rebels who had revolted against the lordship of God and then lived in a spirit of antagonism towards him. But who are those in heaven who had to be reconciled with sinful humans? Is Paul referring to the holy angels? We could see how they would be opposed to the sinful human race – they had been used by God many times as his instruments of judgement. But they only exercised that power when God gave them authority to do so. So perhaps it is better to say that the heavenly creatures experience reconciliation in the sense that, because of Christ‘s death, they will never again be separated from redeemed humans by their sins.
It is important to remember that both God and sinners had to be reconciled to one another. In order to appreciate this aspect, we must ask, How did humans and God express their opposition to one another? The humans did so by rebelling against God’s rule and God did so by placing the rebels under present and future judgement, the expressions of his wrath. The present judgement includes banishment from his kingdom and the sentence of death and the future judgement involves eternal punishment in a lost eternity.
How did Jesus bring the opposing parties together? He was the eternal God, the divine Son of the heavenly Father, equal with him in power and glory. The first step was him becoming what he had not been (truly man) without ceasing to be what he had always been (fully God). This he did at his incarnation.
The second step was for Jesus to undergo the punishment that the human rebels should have suffered. We noted earlier that it included banishment from God, the experience of death, and the reality of eternal punishment. Paul includes these aspects in his phrase about Jesus, ‘by the blood of his cross.’ The cross was the symbol of banishment (it meant that the victim had been cast out of human society), blood showed the reality of his death, and he experienced banishment and death because he was making peace by bearing the fullness of the divine penalty of eternal judgement. When this happened he achieved reconciliation between God and man.
It is important to note that reconciliation was achieved, not merely made possible. So when we say that this was a universal reconciliation we do not mean that God and every human will be reconciled to one another. The humans for whom Jesus made reconciliation on the cross will be the ones who will respond by faith to the gospel message, whether they lived before Jesus suffered or after he suffered. And among them were the members of the church in Colosse.