Salutation, 1-2

1:1 From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, 1:2 to the saints, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ, at Colossae. Grace and peace to you from God our Father!

An apostle – Paul reserves this term for himself. He does not use it of Timothy, his close companion, nor even of Epaphras, even though it was the latter who first brought the gospel to Colossae.

Of Christ by the will of God – he is neither self-appointed nor elected by others. It is this that gives Paul his authority, both for his original readers and for us today.

The holy and faithful brothers – i.e. ‘the saints and believing brothers’ (Bruce). This appellation, together with the generally friendly tone of the letter and absence of rebuke such as we find in the letter to the Galatians, suggests that although the Colossians were under threat from heresy, they had not yet succumbed to it. See Col 2:4,8.

‘Saints’ describes their relation to God; ‘brothers’ to one another.

‘Sainthood is at once a gift and a vocation. What is first a status conferred, then becomes a calling to be followed, 1 Cor 1:2.’ (Wilson)

Grace and peace to you

A reproof to the folly of this world

In offering this customary prayer, the apostle ‘reproves the folly of this world, in which almost all wish for themselves and their friends, health, riches, and honours; but grace, peace, and other spiritual good things, they neither regard, nor think of. But Christ commands us to seek first the kingdom of God, Mt 6:33.’ (John Davenant)

Paul’s Thanksgiving and Prayer for the Church, 3-8

1:3 We always give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 1:4 since we heard about your faith in Christ Jesus and the love that you have for all the saints.

We always thank God – Pagan letters often began with thanksgiving to a deity. Here, Paul Christianises the convention. Because salvation is God’s work, Paul never congratulates his readers on their faith, but instead gives thanks to the Lord.

The Father of our Lord Jesus Christ – This ‘serves to advertise the fact that God can only be savingly known through the self-giving love by which he has been pleased to reveal himself.’ (Wilson)

When we pray for you – ‘We should rejoice in the piety of others, Col 1:2-8. It should be to us a subject of unfeigned gratitude to God, when others are faithful to their high calling, and when they so live as to adorn the blessed gospel. In all their faith, and love, and joy, we should find occasion for thankfulness to God. We should not envy it, or be disposed to charge it to wrong motives, or suspect it of insincerity or hypocrisy; but should welcome every account of the zeal and faithfulness of those who bear the Christian name-no matter who the persons are, or with what denomination of Christians they may be connected. Especially is this true in relation to our friends, or to those for whose salvation we have laboured. The source of highest gratitude to a Christian, in relation to his friends, should be, that they act as becomes the friends of God; the purest joy that can swell the bosom of a minister of Christ, is produced by the evidence that they to whom he has ministered are advancing in knowledge and love.’ (Barnes)

Faith is not just (as often today) any religious belief. It is ‘faith in Christ Jesus’.  This phrase, says Wright, may not refer so much to the object of faith, as to its sphere.  Wilson concurs, adding, ‘for union with Christ is not only the source of life, but also the realm in which it is operative.’

Faith includes not only trust in a person, but belief that certain things are true Rom 4:24 10:9. If anything, the present passage emphasises the ‘belief’ side of faith, although the ‘commitment’ side is by no means absent.

The love you have for all the saints – This is singled out in v8 as main element in the news that Epaphras brought to Paul.

These two elements – faith in Christ Jesus and love for all the saints – are two sure marks of a Christian believers. ‘Those who lack them cannot rightly claim the name of Christian.’ (Wilson)

‘The remarkable repetition of the word “all” in this epistle is evidently directed against the exclusiveness and caste-feeling which was fostered by the errorists’ claim to superior knowledge, Col 1:28. This should teach us that there is no room in the church for any intellectual, spiritual, or social elite, which separates itself from fellow-believers whom Christ has accepted, Col 3:11.’ (Wilson)

1:5 Your faith and love have arisen from the hope laid up for you in heaven, which you have heard about in the message of truth, the gospel 1:6 that has come to you. Just as in the entire world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, so it has also been bearing fruit and growing among you from the first day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth.

Faith…love…hope – These three are also linked at Rom 5:1-5; 1 Cor 13:13; Gal 5:5-6; 1 Thess 1:3 5:8.

Hendriksen points out that this triad of graces occurs in the teaching of our Lord:-

Jn 11:5 Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.
Jn 11:4,11,25,26 “This illness is not unto death…I am the resurrection and the life”
Jn 11:26 “Do you believe this?”

See also Jn 13:1; 13:34; 14:1-3.

The Christian is not defined by some mystical subjective experience, but by faith, love and hope. The faith is in Christ, the love is for Christian brothers and sisters, and the hope is for our heavenly inheritance.

‘This hope is not a subjective attitude of expectation, but is the objective content of the gospel, Col 1:23.’ (Wilson)

‘These three qualities are the hallmarks, and proper evidences, of a work of God in the soul of man. More than this may not be required in assessing the worth of a believer’s claim to be a true child of God.’ (Lucas)

The hope that is stored up for you in heaven is accordingly unassailable. That hope is nothing less that Christ himself. ‘”Christ Jesus” appears here to be viewed not so much as the object of their faith as the living environment within which their faith is exercised; that is to say, the faith of which the apostle speaks is the faith which they have as men and women who are “in Christ Jesus”.’ (Bruce)

This emphasis on ‘hope’ reminds us that the salvation which we enjoy in the here and now does have a future aspect. It will be consummated on the day of Christ’s parousia, and so can be described as nearer to us now than when we first believed, Rom 13:11. (Bruce)

Lucas comments: ‘It is of real importance for present-day Christians to be reminded that a genuine spiritual experience is marked by “hope” as much as by “faith” and “love.” This is seldom the emphasis in modern Christian teaching…Hope in Paul’s vocabulary has to do with the ultimate future; it is that confident assurance and expectancy of the vaster blessings in store for believers in the life of the world to come,. cf. Rom 8:24-25 where it is our present experience of salvation that gives us this keen anticipation of a more complete redemption in the future life.’

If this hope is ‘laid up for us in heaven’ then ‘we are not to think of ourselves as largely enjoying the fruits of Christ’s victory now, with heaven as some glorious consummation, a kind of finishing touch. Rather we are to recognise that heaven holds most of the great things won for us by Christ, and that our present experience is no more than a precious foretaste of what is to come.’ (Lucas)

This emphasis on the Christian hope has relevance to the the dangers the Colossians faced. ‘If the new teaching claimed to offer a fullness of experience in this world that in reality belongs only to the next the Colossians will have needed this protection from disillusionment. Perhaps the visitors scoffed at the notions of “patient waiting” which the Colossians had learned, and urged upon them the right to “claim now” a completeness of Christian experience.’ (Lucas)

They had already heard about this hope. Here is an implied contrast between the gospel they had received from Epaphras and the novel teaching of the errorists.

The gospel is the word of truth and is therefore utterly reliable. Cf Eph 1:13. It contrasts with the ‘vain deceit’ of the false gospel, Col 2:8.

‘The gospel is not speculation but fact. It is truth, because it is the record of a Person who is the truth. The history of his life and death is the one source of all certainty and knowledge with regard to man’s relations to God, and God’s loving purposes to man. To leave it and him of whom it speaks in order to listen to men who spin theories out of their own brains is prefer will-o’-the-wisps to the sun.’ (Maclaren)

The gospel had come as ‘a word’, ‘that is, by preaching and teaching which called for a listening and understanding response.’ (Lucas)

And this word is ‘the truth’. ‘Could simple”]r words make a grander claim? The gospel of Christ is nothing less than the truth, beyond human invention and imagination.’ The gospel of Christ is ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’. ‘The gospel is just this, so we can neither add to it, nor subtract from it, without doing serious harm to the integrity of that unique proclamation.’ (Lucas)

‘Truth’ is often relativised in our so-called post-modern times. ‘This is my truth; tell me yours’. But the truth of the gospel is absolute and therefore universal.

It is often claimed that truth is embodied in Christ, rather than enshrined in doctrinal formulation. But we only commit ourselves to the person of Christ insofar as we accept the truth about Christ. We cannot trust in a living Saviour without believing the facts about his resurrection on the third day, 1 Cor 15:17. As Lucas reminds us, Jesus asked his friends, ‘Do you believe this?’ as well as, ‘Do you believe in me?’ Jn 11:25-27.

A summary of the gospel

Col 1:6-8 contain the following summary of the gospel:-

  1. It is good news. That is the meaning of the word
  2. It is truth. It does not give speculations but certainties.
  3. It is universal. It is for all races and conditions.
  4. It is productive. It has the power to change individuals and societies.
  5. It tells of grace. It tells not so much of what we must do, but of what God has done.
  6. It is humanly transmitted. Epaphras knew that the possession of the gospel involves a responsibility to share it.

(See DSB)

All over the world – See Rom 10:18 par Ps 19:4. ‘This Christian community in Colossae had come into existence during that period of prodigious missionary and evangelistic activity associated with the apostle’s Ephesian ministry (c. AD 52 to 55). So effective were the daily evangelistic “dialogues” held in the hall of Tyrannus, where Paul’s bold speaking compelled men’s attention during the long siesta period…, that it is possible for Luke to claim that “all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” Acts 19:8-10.’ (Lucas)

Hendriksen comments on the rapid progress of the gospel:

‘The rapid progress of the gospel in the early days has ever been the amazement of the historian. Justin Martyr, about the middle of the second century, wrote, “There is no people, Greek or barbarian, or of any other race, by whatever appellation or manners they may be distinguished, however ignorant of arts or agriculture, whether they dwell in tents or wander about in covered wagons, among whom prayers and thanksgivings are not offered in the name of the crucified Jesus to the Father and Creator of all things.” Half a century later Tertullian adds, “We are but of yesterday, and yet we already fill your cities, islands, camps, your palace, senate, and forum. We have left you only your temples.” R. H. Glover (The Progress of World-Wide Missions, p. 39) states, “On the basis of all the data available it has been estimated that by the close of the Apostolic Period the total number of Christian disciples had reached half a million.”’

‘From his perspective as a converted Pharisee the important point was that the salvation promised in the Old Testament had now been unleashed upon the world irrespective of geographical or racial barriers.’ (Wright)

‘The Christian gospel has, from the start, been a “catholic” faith, that is to say, universal in its appeal and scope, whereas it is of the essence of all esoteric versions of the truth that they possess only local and temporary appeal.’ (Lucas)

‘The gospel is universal. It is for all the world. It is not confined to any one race or nation, nor to any one class or condition. Very few things in this world are open to all men. A man’s mental calibre decides the studies he can undertake. A man’s social class decides the circle amidst which he will move. A man’s material wealth determines the possessions he can amass. A man’s particular gifts decide the things he can do. But the message of the gospel is open without exception to all men.’ (DSB)

This gospel is bearing fruit and growing – ‘The fruit, which the gospel bears without fail in all soils and under every climate, is its credential, its verification, as against the pretensions of spurious counterfeits.’ (Lightfoot)

It is notable that theological liberalism, though so dominant in the academy for a century, could not pass the test of fruitfulness and growth. On the contrary, where it did not empty churches it left to spiritual and moral aridity.

You…understood God’s grace in all its truth – ‘The young church at Colossae had understood “grace” in its true meaning and simplicity, without any of the false additions that so easily make grace no longer grace.’ (Lucas)

1:7 You learned the gospel from Epaphras, our dear fellow slave—a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf—1:8 who also told us of your love in the Spirit.

You learned it – The implication is that Epaphras had been ‘a conscientious and thorough teacher of the gospel message.’ (Lucas)

Epaphras – See Col 4:12-13; Phm 1:23. He may possibly, but not probably, be identified with Epaphroditus, Php 2:25 4:18. He would have been one of Paul’s early converts, and then trained up in ministry and leadership. He had recently visited Paul in Rome and reported how the churches in the Lycus valley – including the Colossian church – were faring. Most of the news was good, but there were some concerning aspects that led Paul to write this letter.

Minister – a term of lowly service, used of Christ himself, Rom 15:8, Paul, 2 Cor 11:23; Eph 3:7, and Paul’s associates, 1 Cor 3:5; 1 Tim 4:6.

Note carefully Paul’s support at a time when Epaphras’ ministry was probably being demeaned by the new teachers.

This is the only mention of the Spirit in this epistle. ‘In view of the very full teaching on the Spirit which is found in Ephesians, it is rather remarkable that hits is the only explicit reference to the Spirit in Colossians, but this is probably due to the apostle’s desire to stress the absolute supremacy of Christ, Col 1:18.’ (Wilson)

‘Epaphras not only took the good news to Colossae, but also brought back to Paul a largely encouraging report of the progress of the new community.’ (Wilson)

Paul’s Prayer for the Growth of the Church, 9-14

1:9 For this reason we also, from the day we heard about you, have not ceased praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 1:10 so that you may live worthily of the Lord and please him in all respects—bearing fruit in every good deed, growing in the knowledge of God, 1:11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might for the display of all patience and steadfastness, joyfully 1:12 giving thanks to the Father who has qualified you to share in the saints’ inheritance in the light.

The apostle now turns from thanksgiving to prayer. But in both of these introductory themes he is preparing for his major theme, which concerns the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ. Paul’s thanksgiving implies that the Colossians have already received Christ in all his fulness. His prayer, accordingly, is that they might appropriate and grow in the knowledge and power they already have in Christ. This is in contrast to the false teachers, who were evidently claiming that some new knowledge, or blessing, or experience, was required before believers could think they had really ‘made it’.

Paul’s prayer in 9-14 is that his readers might know God’s will and have the power to do it. Paul has expressed thanks for the Colossians reception of the gospel; but he wants them to continue to make progress in it.

No room for complacency

Although he would have the Colossians resist the spurious offers of knowledge and power, and although he would have them appreciate the completeness of what they already have in Christ, ‘Paul is no enemy to growth and progress in Christian experience. It is true that he is constantly reminding his readers of what is already theirs in Christ Jesus. But what an absurdity to think of him as an apostle of complacence and self-satisfaction!’ (Lucas) Indeed, Col 2:6-7 will emphasise that the development of the Christian life should be an outgrowth of its beginnings.

Be filled with knowledge and power!

Paul prays for the Colossians to be filled with knowledge and power. These were, no doubt, the very things that the false teachers were offering. But whereas theirs was a secret, elitist knowledge and a manipulative power, the knowledge that Paul prays for is the knowledge of what pleases God, and the power he prays for is the ability to remain faithful in adversity.

Since the day we heard about you – This echoes what has been said in Col 1:6. If we refer to prayer for one another at all, we tend to say, “I will pray for you.” All too often, we leave it there, and forget all about it. But Paul had not forgotten about them, even though he had never met them. He was able to say, “I have been praying for you.”

‘In Paul’s gospel the goal is no mystic awe-inspiring apprehension of divine mysteries reserved for an elite. It is rather an intelligent grasp of what the will of God demands in daily living.’ (Lucas)

‘The apostle here made request for something intensely practical: not speculations about the divine nature, prying into the divine decrees, not inquisitive explorations of unfulfilled prophecy, but the knowledge of God’s will as it respects the ordering of our daily walk in this world.’ (A.W. Pink)

True knowledge leads to right behaviour, and begins with a right attitude towards God (the ‘fear of the Lord’ Prov 1:7).

‘In the instruction of primitive Christianity, understanding of the will of God is always connected with the command to follow God’s will and to do it.’ (Lohse)

Wisdom and understanding were precisely what David asked for his son Solomon, and what Solomon himself asked for, 1 Chron 22:12; 2 Chron 1:10. ‘Faced daily with difficult problems, and often even more difficult people, Solomon must know how to related the unchanging principles of God’s will, revealed in the law, to the present and quickly changing questions of the day.’ (Lucas) No wonder such wisdom and understanding is stressed, given the Christian’s high calling spelt out in v10.

This wisdom and understanding are designated spiritual in order to show that they are not natural virtues but come from the Spirit. ‘For Paul these “spiritual” gifts stand in direct contrast to the empty pretensions to “wisdom,” Col 2:23, which proceeded from “the mind of the flesh,” Col 2:18.’ (Wilson)

This verse emphasises the very practical nature of the knowledge which Paul wants the Colossians to gain.

‘In the context of this letter, it is important to realise that these goals are for every single believer.’ (Lucas)

A life worthy of the Lord – ‘The obedience Christians practice must be sufficient to give the world an adequate picture of their Lord and his purposes for mankind.’ (Lucas)

‘Live a life’ is lit. ‘walk’. This ‘likens the Christian life to a journey towards heaven, which calls for unwearied advance along the path marked out for such pilgrims, Isa 35:8.’ (Wilson)

Guidance, in a nutshell

To be filled with the knowledge of God’s will is not to gain a detailed map of God’s future plans for one’s individual life but to attain to full obedience to his revealed will. It is to please God in every way and to live as befits the children of God.

The knowledge of God

Three stages of knowledge

  1. The knowledge of God’s grace, Col 1:6
  2. The knowledge of God’s will, Col 1:9
  3. The knowledge of God himself, Col 1:10

(Pickering, 1,000 Subjects for Speakers and Students)

Knowledge, true and false

Paul has quite a lot to say about ‘knowledge’ in this epistle. But this is not, as Bruce reminds us, merely intellectual knowledge. Nor is it the ‘gnosis‘ – the ‘knowledge falsely so called’ – that was threatening to lead the Colossians astray.

Please him in every way – ‘We need to “study” God’s pleasure by searching out his likes and dislikes as he has revealed them.’ (Lucas) In doing this, we shall be liberated from craving for the approval of others.

‘To do anything to meet, to anticipate, his wishes, is not only the most beneficial but the most absolutely right thing we can do. It is his eternal and sacred due; it is at the same time the surest path to our own highest development and gain.’ (H.C.G. Moule)

Bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God – Once again, Paul emphasises the practical nature of spiritual knowledge. and in doing so ‘implicitly condemns the barren intellectualism of the heretics who gloried in their “superior” knowledge, Col 2:8.’ (Wilson)

‘The evidence God looks for is not so much spiritual as practical. The harvest of wisdom is works.’ (Lucas)

James Denney caught Paul’s tone when he famously wrote, ‘I haven’t the faintest interest in any theology that doesn’t help us to evangelise.’

In addition to praying for knowledge, Paul prays for power.

Strengthened with power – This is power to do God’s will in the face of difficulty and opposition. It is one thing to know God’s will (Paul has just been praying for this). It is quite another to do it. Therefore, we need God’s enablement.

According to his glorious might – The reference to ‘glory’ here ‘stands for the power of God “as manifested to men,” and as the parallel passage in Eph 1:19-20 indicates, this divine power was supremely manifested in the resurrection of Christ. Hence the request is that they may be empowered with the same might by which Christ was raised from the dead, cf. Rom 6:4.’ (Wilson, quoting Lightfoot)

Endurance and patience – The first of these ‘is the brave endurance which triumphs over adverse circumstances’, and the second ‘is the capacity to endure the wrongs inflicted by others without being provoked to retaliation’ (Wilson).  In other words, these have to do with doing God’s will in the face of difficult circumstances, and in the face of difficult people.

‘It would not be easy, in so few words, to concentrate more emphasis on the possibilities of divine power in human lives…But it is power for all endurance and patience. Is this an anti-climax? It may seem so, yet it is true to the business of living for Christ in the real world. For that world is one where the Christian needs all of God’s almighty power steadily to continue and persevere despite the suffering, opposition, shocks and disappointments that must at times be his lot, doing this not with despondency or collapsing morale, but with joy!’ (Lucas)

Power for…what?

In his prayers, ‘the apostle expresses no concern for believers to experience the miraculous. Instead, his desire is that they experience the “power” of God in order to attain steadfastness and patience, (Col 1:11) to grow in the faith that makes Christ at home in their hearts and gives them experience in love, (Eph 3:16-19) and to maintain their hope (Col 1:18; cf. Rom 15:13). In other words, his prayers are for the experience of God’s power in the three key areas of the present Christian life – faith, hope, and love. Peter likewise refers to power protecting the believer unto final salvation.’ (1 Pet 1:5)

(Robert Saucy in Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? (Ed. Grudem, 99)

‘Such an endowment with divine power will enable them to stand firm in the face of trial and opposition and everything else that will test their faith in Christ.’ (Bruce)

As an example of ‘great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to be Lord’, see Acts 16:25.

‘So the Christian prayer is: “Make me, O Lord, victorious over every circumstance; make me patient with every person; and withal give me the joy which no circumstance and no man will ever take from me.”‘ (DSB)

Just as Paul has expressed thankfulness to God, so his readers have every reason to do so as well, as they think of what God has done for them through his Son.

According to vv12f, as Lucas says, the Christians can rightly say

He has qualified us!
He has delivered us!

‘In Christianity, someone has said, theology is grace, and ethics is gratitude. If God’s attitude and action towards us have been characterised by grace, our response to him, in life and behaviour as well as in thought and word, should be characterised by gratitude.’ (Bruce)

The language here recalls God’s covenant with Abraham, Gen 13:14-17. But the new covenant is greater and more enduring, because it does not involve the land of Canaan, but the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. See Paul’s comments on heavenly inheritance in Acts 20:32; 26:18.

Another sense in which the new covenant is greater than the old is the inheritance is shared with all the saints – Jews and Gentiles. See Eph 2:19.

‘There is a sense in which verses 12-14 make very clear what Paul is not praying for. There are certain blessings of the gospel which already belong to the Colossians because of their incorporation into Christ. These spiritual possessions are thankfully to be relied upon as theirs. There can be no question of seeking for these splendid gifts since, in Christ, they are already theirs.’ (Lucas)

The Father…has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints – ‘God the Father has himself provided what sinners need to be considered worthy to join the people of God.’ (Moo)

‘All the conditions have been met which entitle a person to claim his full standing as an enlightened member of God’s chosen people.’ (Lucas)

Compare Col 2:18, where it becomes clear that the new teachers were making the converts feel like second-class citizens in God’s kingdom. But Paul assures his readers that they are fully qualified now for their future inheritance. To believe so (and, for example, to reject the doctrine of purgatory) is not presumptuous, and not ‘too good to be true’, but simply taking God at his word.

‘The reference is not immediately to the coming glory, but to the present grace.’ (H.C.G. Moule) See Col 1:13; Eph 5:8.

‘It should be noted that the Old Testament concept of the inheritance is here spiritualised and applied to the church as the new Israel of God, cf. 1 Pet 2:9.’ (Wilson)

The kingdom of light

1:13 He delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of the Son he loves, 1:14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

Chapter 2 will show that the false teachers offered a new deliverance, and new release from bondance, a new liberty. But Paul will now show the almighty deliverance that Christ has already achieved on behalf of his people.

He has rescued us – or, freed us, as at the Exodus.

The dominion of darkness (contrast with ‘kingdom of light, v12) is described in v21. The same phrase is used by Luke in his account of our Lord’s arrest in Gethsemane, Lk 22:52-53.

‘Formerly, we were under the devil’s authority, not merely as his helpless captives but also as his willing slaves, Eph 2:2.’ (Wilson)

‘The dark power did indeed have its brief hour of opportunity against the Son of man, but it was only a brief hour, and it ended in the utter defeat of the dark power. By virtue of his conquest then, Christ now has the authority to raid the domain of darkness and rescue those who had hitherto been fast bound under the control of its guardians. Here, no doubt, Paul has the Colossian heresy in view, for those very guardians, “the world-rulers of this darkness” as they are called in Eph 6:10, are the principalities and powers to which the Christians of Colossae were being urged to pay some meed of homage. But why should they do any such thing? They had already been rescued from the sphere dominated by those principalities, and translated into the realm of the victorious Son of God. No longer was there any need for them to live in fear of those astral powers which were believed to control the destinies of men; their transference to the dominion of light had been accomplished once for all.’ (Bruce)

Paul seems to distinguish between the inauguration of God’s kingdom and its consummation by tending to refer to the former as ‘the kingdom of Christ’ (or something similar) and the latter as ‘the kingdom of God.’ See 1 Cor 6:9-10; 15:24,50; Gal 5:21; 2 Tim 4:1,18.

Brought us into the kingdom – note that this is a present, and not only a future, kingdom.

Brought us might be translated ‘transported us’. The same verb is used by Josephus of a king who transported the conquered Israelites to his own kingdom.


We have been transferred,

1. From darkness to light.
2. From slavery to freedom
3. From condemnation to forgiveness
4. From the power of Satan to the power of God.

(See DSB)

The Son he loves – ‘Note the portrayal of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels as God’s beloved son, (Mt 3:17; 17:5; Mk 1:11; 9:7; Lk 3:22) and the rich Old Testament background out of which the designation arises.’ (Deut 18:15; Ps 2:7; Isa 42:1) (New Geneva)

‘As the phrase “the Son he loves” points to Christ as the great object of God’s love, this love of the Father for the Son thus becomes the pledge of his love for all who are “in Christ,” Eph 1:6.’ (Wilson)

This underlines the great sacrifice of the Father in giving his well-beloved Son in order the the kingdom might come. ‘A late writer tells us, that he has been informed, that in the famine in Germany, a poor family being ready to perish with famine, the husband made a motion to the wife, to sell one of the children for bread, to relieve themselves and the rest. The wife at last consents it should be so; but then they began to think which of the four should be sold; and when the eldest was named, they both refused to part with that, being their first born, and the beginning of their strength. Well, then they came to the second, but could not yield that he should be sold, being the very picture and lively image of his father. The third was named, but that also was a child that best resembled the mother. And when the youngest was thought on, that was the Benjamin, the child of their old age; and so were content rather to perish altogether in the famine, than to part with a child for relief. And you know how tenderly Jacob took it, when his Joseph and Benjamin were rent from him. What is a child, but a piece of the parent wrapt up in another skin? And yet our dearest children are but as strangers to us, in comparison of the unspeakable dearness that was betwixt the Father and Christ. Now, that he should ever be content to part with a Son, and such an only one, is such a manifestation of love, as will be admired to all eternity.’ (Flavel)

‘God’s people are a kingdom, the sphere of his rule, “his dominion.” The original Israelite theocracy, which was repudiated when the people asked for a king like the heathen nations, has been recovered and spiritualized through Christ. In saving us God “has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.” And Christ exercises his rule in his people through his Spirit, “for the kingdom of God does not mean food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”‘ (Stott, One People)

‘The absolute nature of the apostle’s antithesis shows that there is no middle state between the power of darkness and the kingdom of grace: “All who breathe are either in the one or the other”.’ (Wilson, quoting James Fergusson)

‘Here the liberation of an enslaved people is still in view, but the metaphor has changed from “the victor who rescues the captive by force of arms, v13, to the philanthropist who released him by the payment of a ransom.’ (Wilson, quoting Lightfoot)

Redemption is deliverance by the payment of a price. That price is the death of Christ, Eph 1:7; 1 Pet 1:18. The implication is that we were formerly in slavery to sin and to the powers of darkness.

The forgiveness of sins – not a common expression in Paul (but cf. Eph 1:7); he prefers to use the more comprehensive vocabulary of justification.

In whom – ‘Although men may fondly claim that forgiveness is God’s business, there can be no thought of “cheap” forgiveness when we remember that our redemption cost God the life of his beloved Son. But we must not overlook the force of this all-important phrase, which sets forth the condition of possessing this redemption. For we have the free forgiveness of our sins only as we are found in living union with Christ. “We cannot get his gifts without himself.’ (Wilson, quoting Maclaren)

‘If the Colossian errorists had defined “redemption” in terms of a mystic deliverance through the mere possession of superior knowledge this would explain Paul’s insistence upon the moral content of the gospel, namely, that the primary blessing of God’s great rescue by ransom is “the forgiveness of sins.” As unforgiven sin presents an insuperable barrier to blessing, so the forgiveness of sins is the priceless boon which opens the door to every other spiritual blessing, Rom 4:6-8.’ (Wilson)

Lucas says that this verse is important for us today ‘because it unites what too often we tend to divide. The blessing of forgiveness has sometimes been devalued, as though it were no more than the wiping of the slate clean. But sin is always a power that holds people in thrall, so, in Paul’s teaching, forgiveness must include the breaking of that power.’

The Supremacy of Christ, 15-20

1:15  He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation,
1:16 for all things in heaven and on earth were created by him—all things, whether visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions, whether principalities or powers—all things were created through him and for him.
1:17 He himself is before all things and all things are held together in him.
1:18 He is the head of the body, the church, as well as the beginning, the firstborn from among the dead, so that he himself may become first in all things.

Bruce describes the language of this section as being marked by a ‘liturgico-hymnic’ style similar to Jn 1:1ff; Heb 1:1-4; 1 Pet 2:22-24; 3:22. This suggests that Paul is echoing here a primitive Christian confession of faith.  It is possible that Paul may have written it himself on an earlier occasion, and then quoted it here. In any case, it is clear the Paul endorses the content of the hymn. The two sections, vv 15-17 and 18-20, are roughly parallel to one another: the first puts Christ as the head of creation, and the second puts him as head of the new creation.

In other words, we see here the supremacy of Christ, (a) in creation, vv15-17, and (b) in redemption, vv18-20.

Verses 15-17 contain one on the clearest statements of the deity of Christ to be found in Scripture, along with Jn 1:1-18; Heb 1:1-3.

He is the image of the invisible God – Cf. Heb 1:3. ‘Here he uses a word and a picture which would waken all kinds of memories in the minds of those who heard it. The word is eikon, and image is its correct translation. Now, as Lightfoot points out, an image can be two things which merge into each other. It can be a representation; but a representation, if it is perfect enough, can become a manifestation. When Paul uses this word, he lays it down that Jesus is the perfect manifestation of God. To see what God is like, we must look at Jesus. He perfectly represents God to men in a form which they can see and know and understand.’ (DSB)

Jesus Christ is himself the most important witness to the existence of God. God has revealed himself in his Son, 2 Cor 4:6; Christ has made known the Father, Col 1:15-17; the visible glory of Christ on earth was such as belongs to God alone, Jn 1:14; through him we may know the Father, 1 Jn 1:1-3; Jn 14:7; his miracles testify to his own divinity, Jn 20:30-31; to have seen him was to have seen the Father, Jn 14:9.

The firstborn over all creation – The Gnostic view was the creation (of evil matter) was carried out by an inferior god, ignorant of and hostile to the true God. By way of contrast, Paul points out that God’s agent in creation is the Son.

How can Paul use ‘firstborn’ language here? Does this mean that he conceives of Christ as simply the first thing that God created? No: although in the OT, ‘firstborn’ usually refers to the first person to be born in a family, it actually has more to do with rights and privileges than with order of birth. This is the meaning here. Christ is number one over all creation; he occupies the number one position in God’s family; he is the one the Father loves most.

In the 4th century, the Arians taught that Jesus was the highest-ranking being in God’s creation.  He was above the rest of creation, but below God himself in rank and divinity.

This heresy is followed to today by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Their New World Translation has:

‘by means of him all [other] things were created in the heavens and upon the earth, the things visible and the things invisible, no matter whether they are thrones or lordships or governments or authorities. All [other] things have been created through him and for him. 17 Also, he is before all [other] things and by means of him all [other] things were made to exist,’

The repeated interpolation of the word ‘other’ is intended to support the denial of Christ’s deity by that sect; it is, however, unwarranted by the text itself.

On Paul’s use of language here, HSB comments:

‘Paul is using the language about a firstborn son metaphorically, as the Old Testament does. Jesus is not presented as a creation of God or as a child of God born through some Goddess (as was common in pagan mythology), but as the chief of God’s family, whether the old family of creation or the new family of redemption. He is before it. He is the cause of the family. He is the leader of the whole family. In every way he is first. Yet he is not part of the creation, nor even one of the redeemed, for he is the image of God and the one in whom all the fullness of God dwelt.’

Michael Bird offers the following reasons why the Arian interpretation of this verse is mistaken:

(1) There are better words besides prōtotokos that could be supplied if Paul wanted to refer to Christ as an angelic creature, such as prōtoktistos (“created first”), prōtoplastos (“first formed”), prōtogonos (“first generated”), prōtosystatos (“primordial”), prōtochronos (“first in chronology”), or prōtopresbyteros (“first ancient being”)…

(2) In Col 1.16, Christ is not part of ta panta “all things,” the poem distinguishes Christ from other angelic powers and heavenly intermediaries, the same distinction that generally separates God from creation and angels in other Jewish and Christian writings (e.g. Isa 44.24; 66.1-2; Sir 24.8; 1 Enoch 9.5);

(3) Two unique aspects are also attributed to Christ in the poem: first, that creation was made “for him” (1.16); second, that God’s “fullness” inhabits him (1.19), neither of which are attributed to lesser angelic powers as far as I am aware.

This verse provides a good illustration of the importance of systematic and historical theology in the interpretation of the biblical text.

‘All that the church learned in the Arian controversy forbids us to tolerate any exegesis that compromises either the pre-existence or the deity (creator-hood) of the Saviour.’ (McLeod)

All things in heaven and on earth were created by him – or, ‘in him’ (ἐν αὐτῷ).  According to Pao, this expression is explicated by the ‘through him and for him’ at the end of the verse.

All things were created through him and for him

NIV (1984) – ‘all things were created by him and for him.’
NIV – ‘all things have been created through him and for him.’
ESV – ‘all things were created through him and for him.’
NASB95 – ‘all things have been created through Him and for Him.’
GNB – ‘God created the whole universe through him and for him.’

This latter assertion ‘for him’ prompts reflection. In what sense can the universe be said to have been made for Christ?

‘Ours is a Christocentric universe. He is its nerve centre. The whole creation is designed to reveal him; the natural shows forth the spiritual.’ (J.O. Sanders)

The Cosmic Dimension

In Paul’s teaching, God’s grace, ‘while entering human history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and at a given point of time (Gal 4:4; cf. Eph 1:10), has repercussions that affect the cosmic scene and involve even the mysterious spiritual intelligences often referred to in Paul’s worldview. These cosmic forces are regarded as both created by God and alienated from him (Col 1:15-20; cf. Eph 3:9-10; Rom 8:38-39; 1 Cor 8:5-6).’ (DPL)

Clearly, the aim of this verse is not primarily to teach metaphysics, but to assert the supremacy of Christ over all things. However, it is legitimate to ask what these ‘thrones, powers, rules and authorities’ refer to. Wright is happy for them to refer to (say) international power politics or economic structures, although he adds that the supernatural or ‘demonic’ element in these ‘powers’ is not to be ignored. ‘For Paul, the “powers” were unseen forces working in the world through pagan religion, astrology, or magic, or through the oppressive systems that enslaved or tyrannized human beings.’

He is before all things – This phrase ‘probably refers both to primacy and rank’ (Wright). If so, it asserts both the precedence of Christ, and his pre-eminence.

In him all things hold together – ‘Through him the world is sustained, prevented from falling into chaos’ (Wright). ‘Christ occupies the whole sphere of human life and permeates all its developments. The laws of Nature are formulated and administered by the risen Christ’ (J.O. Sanders).

He is the head of the body, the church – ‘The Church of God apart from the Person of Christ is a useless structure. However ornate it may be in its organization, however perfect in all its arrangements, however rich and increased with goods, if the Church is not revealing the Person, lifting him to the height where all men can see him, then the Church becomes an impertinence and a sham, a blasphemy and a fraud, and the sooner the world is rid of it, the better.’ (G. Campbell Morgan)

The firstborn from among the dead – Cf. v15, where Paul says that ‘Christ is the firstborn over all creation’.  Paul’s use of language is such that he quite often uses favourite words in slightly different ways (so also ‘law’ and ‘righteousness’.  In v15, ‘firstborn’ means ‘first in rank’ (and probably also ‘existing prior to’), and in v18 it means that Jesus was the first of the dead to be raised.  (See the discussion in Packer, God’s Words, p144f.)

Instone-Brewer notes that it is often assumed that Jesus’ resurrection was a reanimation of his recently-deceased corpse.  But that description scarcely holds for the resurrection of long-dead believers.  But, if Jesus is truly ‘the first-born from among the dead’ we must suppose that his resurrection body is the same, in essence, as ours will be:

‘Jesus was alive again before his body had suffered much decay, so we usually assume that his resurrection body was simply his reanimated corpse. Until recent centuries, most Christians assumed that they, too, would be raised from their buried remains, so Jesus’ resurrection didn’t seem significantly different. But if everyone else receives a brand-new resurrection body, while Jesus’ new body was his reanimated corpse, then his resurrection was different and (arguably) inferior to ours.’ (Science and the Bible: Insights For An Ancient Text)

So that in everything he might have the supremacy – ‘As he is first with respect to the Universe, so it was ordained that he should become first with respect to the Church as well.’ (Lightfoot)  Cf. Phil 2:6ff

A sermon outline on vv15-18

The preacher works deductively, aiming to explain and apply the following idea:
“Jesus Christ is supreme over all creatures in everything because of his relation to God, to the creation, and to the church…Christ fills the space between God and man. There is no need for a crowd of shadowy beings to link heaven with earth. Jesus Christ lays His hand upon both. He is the head and fountain of life to His church. Therefore, He is first in all things to be listened to, loved, and worshipped by men.”
“There are here three grand conceptions of Christ’s relations. We have Christ and God, Christ and the creation, Christ and the church, and built upon all these, the triumphant proclamation of His supremacy over all creatures in all respects.”
I. The relation of Christ to God is that he is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15).
A. God in himself is inconceivable and unapproachable.
B. Christ is the perfect manifestation and image of God.
1. In him the invisible becomes visible.
2. He alone provides certitude firm enough for us to find sustaining power against life’s trials.
II. The relation of Christ to creation is that he is “the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15–17).
A. Christ is the agent of all creation, and the phrases Paul used imply priority of existence and supremacy over everything.
B. Christ sustains a variety of relations to the universe; this is developed through the different prepositions Paul used.
III. The relation of Christ to his church is that he is “the head of the body” who is “the beginning, the firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18).
A. What the Word of God before the incarnation was to the universe, so is the incarnate Christ to his church. He is the “firstborn” to both.
B. As “the head of the body” he is the source and center of the church’s life.
C. As the “beginning” of the church through his resurrection, he is the power by which the church began and by which we will be raised.
“The apostle concludes that in all things Christ is first—and all things are, that he may be first. Whether in nature or in grace, the preeminence is absolute and supreme. . . . So the question of questions for us all is, ‘What think ye of Christ?’ . . . Is he anything to us but a name? . . . Happy are we if we give Jesus the preeminence, and if our hearts set ‘Him first, Him last, Him midst and without end.’”

(Alexander MacLaren, cited by Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching, 3rd ed.)

Let him be supreme in our affections

‘In the affections of our hearts let the Saviour in all things have the pre-eminence, Col 1:15-18. He is the image of God; and when we think of him we see what God is-how holy, pure, benevolent. He is the firstborn of all things; the Son of God; exalted to the highest seat in the universe. When we look on the sun, moon, and stars, let us remember that he created them all. When we think of the angels, let us remember that they are the workmanship of his hands. When we look on the earth-the floods, the rivers, the hills, let us remember that all these were made by his power. The vast universe is still sustained by him. Its beautiful order and harmony are preserved by him; and all its movements axe under his control. So the church is under him. It is subject to his command; receives its laws from his lips, and is bound to do his will. Over all councils and synods-over all rule and authority in the church-Christ is the Head; and, whatever may be ordained by man, his will is to be obeyed. So, when we think of the resurrection, Christ is chief. He first rose to return to death no more; he rose as the pledge that his people should also rise. As Christ is thus head over all things, so let him be first in the affections of our hearts; as it is designed that in everything he shall have the pre-eminence, so let him have the pre-eminence in the affections of our souls. None should be loved by us as Christ is loved; and no friend, however dear, should be allowed to displace him from the supremacy in our affections.’ (Barnes)

1:19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in the Son 1:20 and through him to reconcile all things to himself by making peace through the blood of his cross—through him, whether things on earth or things in heaven.

Fullness – This word – pleroma – means fullness, completeness. This word completes the picture of Christ that has been drawn in this chapter.

For some writers, this is the fullness of Godhead: ‘Jesus is not simply a sketch of God or a summary and more than a lifeless portrait of him. In him there is nothing left out; he is the full revelation of God, and nothing more is necessary.’ (DSB)

However, although the present chapter very definitely affirms the essential deity of Christ, it is the fullness which belongs to him as Mediator which is in view here.  In the glorious paradox of Eph 1:23, the church is the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Note the linking word ‘for’.  Wright:

‘It is appropriate that Christ should hold pre-eminence, because God in all his fullness was pleased to take up permanent residence (this is the best way of taking the Greek verb) in him. The full divinity of the man Jesus is stated without any implication that there are two Gods. It is the one God, in all his fullness, who dwells in him.’

Making peace through the blood of his cross – ‘The death of an obscure Jew on a seemingly God-forsaken hillock in a backwater of the Roman empire attracted no notice from the historians of the era, but it was the event that reconciles heaven and earth. The world may be corrupted, disordered, and ravaged by sin, but God still loves it; and God intends for it to fulfill its destiny in Christ. Sin has defaced Christ’s work in creation, but he came to undo its consequences and to bring concord in a universe out of harmony with God.’ (Garland)

Splitting hairs?

‘Gibbon…made himself merry, or made himself miserable, as the case may have been, over the spectacle of Christianity split to its foundations in violent dispute over a mere diphthong – whether Christ should be said to be homo-ousios or only homoi-ousios with God: whether that is, he should be conceived as all that God is, or only in some greater or less degree, more or less like God. The whole substance of Christianity was involved, however, in this controversy; the issue was nothing less than whether the world should be Christian heathen. To represent it as a dispute over a “minor detail,” a mere diphthong, were as sensible as to say that as “gold” and “god” differ in but a single letter, it cannot be of importance whether we serve God or mammon.’ (Warfield, Shorter Writings I, 366f)

Take all your needs to him

‘In all our wants let us go to Christ, Col 1:19 “It pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell.” We have not a want which he cannot supply; there is not a sorrow of our lives in which he cannot comfort us; not a temptation from which he cannot deliver us; not a pain which he cannot relieve, or enable us to bear. Every necessity of body or mind he can supply; and we never can go to him, in any circumstance of life in which we can possibly be placed, where we shall fail of consolation and support because Christ is not able to help us. True piety learns day by day to live more by simple”] dependence on the Saviour. As we advance in holiness we become more and more sensible of our weakness and insufficiency, and more and more disposed to live “by the faith of the Son of God.”‘ (Barnes)

Through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven – ‘“All things” (τὰ πάντα) parallels the references to “all things” in vv. 16 and 17. In light of this parallelism, it most likely refers to both animate and inanimate entities. The neuter phrases that follow, “things on earth … things in heaven,” are consistent with this reading.’ (Pao)

‘The “reconciliation of all things” ought to be understood, in our judgment, with Lohse to mean that the “universe has been reconciled in that heaven and earth have been brought back into their divinely created and determined order … the universe is again under its head and … cosmic peace has returned.”’ (O’Brien)

‘There is no doubt that Paul was thinking of the Gnostics. We will remember that they, regarding matter as essentially and incurably evil, therefore regarded the world as evil. But, as Paul sees it, the world is not evil. It is God’s world and shares in the universal reconciliation.’ (DSB)

‘By religion we become united with the angels, Col 1:20. Harmony is produced between heaven and earth. Alienated worlds are reconciled again, and from jarring elements there is rearing one great and harmonious empire. The work of the atonement is designed to remove what separated earth from heaven; men from angels; man from God. The redeemed have substantially the same feelings now which they have who are around the throne of God; and though we are far inferior to them in rank, yet we shall be united with them in affection and purpose, for ever and ever. What a glorious work is that of the gospel! It reconciles and harmonizes distant worlds, and produces concord and love in millions of hearts which but for that would have been alienated for ever!’ (Barnes)

On reconciliation to God effected by the atonement, see Rom 5:10; 2 Cor 5:18-20; Eph 2:13-16; Heb 2:17; 1 Pet 3:18.

‘God’s missionary purposes are cosmic in scope, concerned with the restoration of all things, the establishment of shalom, the renewal of creation and the coming of the Kingdom as well as the redemption of fallen humanity and the building of the church.’ (Stuart Murray, Q in Mission-shaped Church, p85)

Universal reconciliation?

Colossians 1:19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in the Son 1:20 and through him to reconcile all things to himself by making peace through the blood of his cross—through him, whether things on earth or things in heaven.

Steve Chalke (The Lost Message of Paul, ch. 19) argues that, if Paul’s words in Colossians 1:19f mean anything, ‘all’ must mean ‘all’, and that the ‘reconciliation of all things’ must include all people, without exception.

Here’s what Chalke says:

‘The theologian John Piper uses the same kind of ‘does-all-really-mean-all’ argument to dismiss the power of Paul’s magnificent declaration about Christ in Colossians 1.19–20:

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Jesus], 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.

Piper claims that although some have used this statement from Paul to argue that ‘all rebel creatures . . . will be reconciled to God in the end and there will be no eternal hell’, this is not what it means:

It’s assumed that Paul means ‘all things’ in the universe now will someday be reconciled to God. I don’t think he means that. I think he means that the blood of Christ has secured the victory of God over the universe in such a way that the day is coming when ‘all things’ that are in the new heavens and the new earth will be entirely reconciled to God with no rebel remnants.

But, whatever the fancy exegetical footwork, in the end you have to do one of two things: either conclude that Paul was so loose with his choice of language as to be irresponsibly vague and misleading around the articulation of his central message, or accept that he meant very deliberately to say exactly what he did say. He really is talking about good news for all!’

[By the way, Chalke fails to provide a reference for this quote from Piper.  It can be found here.]

It is odd that Chalke cites Piper’s argument (which I think is idiosyncratic, and rather weak) and no other.  Is he not aware that most competent scholars do not infer universalism (or universal reconciliation) from this text?  They do so for two main reasons:

Firstly, to infer universalism from this text would be to bring it into conflict with the witness of the many non-universalist texts that come from the lips of Christ and from the writings of the inspired apostles.

Secondly, to infer universalism from this text would be to assume (wrongly) that the ‘reconciliation’ referred to is necessarily salvific.

To spell this out in more detail:

F.F. Bruce writes: ‘To deduce from such a passage as this the conclusion that every human being, irrespective of his record of his attitude to God, will at last enjoy celestial bliss, is to deduce something which is contrary to recorded sayings of our Lord, not to mention the teaching of the NT in general.  The peace effected by the death of Christ may be freely accepted, or it may be compulsorily imposed.  When Paul speaks here of reconciliation on the widest scale, he includes in it what we should distinguish as pacification.’

Moo remarks that this passage has been used since the time of Origen to support a doctrine of universalism.  [Indeed, according to Origen, even the devil and the evil angels would be reconciled to God in the end].  But, aside from the consideration that this doctrine ‘cannot be reconciled with clear New Testament teaching about the reality and eternality of Hell’, Col 2:15 makes it clear that there are spiritual beings which are not saved by Christ, but rather vanquished by him.

Elsewhere, Moo says that it is unlikely that Paul is thinking here of salvific reconciliation.  Paul’s teaching here is that God will reconcile ‘all things’ to himself: this expression includes, but is not limited to ‘all human beings’, as the elaboration ‘whether things on earth or things in heaven’ indicates.  ‘All things’ include, therefore, the ‘thrones or powers or rulers or authorities’ of v16; but these are, in Paul’s teaching, hostile powers: ‘they are reconciled through subjugation’ (quoting P.T. O’Brien).  What has already been achieved in principle, ‘through his blood, shed on the cross’, will be completed on the last day (Phil 2:10f).  (in Morgan, Christopher W. Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.)

Garland agrees: ‘The pacification of all things, human and nonhuman, does not mean that the enemies of God are won over in obedience to him. It is not a peace among equals, “but one forcefully brought about by a triumphant victor.” When Paul promises that every knee will bow at the name of Jesus and confess that he is Lord (Phil. 2:10–11), he means that every being will finally acknowledge who is Lord of the universe. The unconditional surrender of the Axis troops in World War II brought a cessation to the hostilities, but war crimes tribunals still awaited those who perpetrated evil (see Rom. 8:19–21; 1 Cor. 15:24–28).’ (Quoting Lars Hartman)

Wright: ‘Paul clearly believed that it was possible for human beings to reject God’s offer of salvation, and that at the last judgment some, having done so, would thereby be themselves rejected (see Rom. 1:18–2:16; 14:10; 2 Cor. 5:10; 2 Thess. 1:5–10). Since he never tells us how he would harmonize this with the reconciliation of ‘all things’, it is risky to guess what he might have said. But the present passage, and the parallel in 2 Corinthians 5, suggest two comments. First, he is emphasizing the universal scope of God’s reconciling purposes; nothing less than a total new creation is envisaged. Secondly, ‘reconciliation’, the re-establishing of a mutual relationship, cannot occur ‘automatically’ in the world of human relations from which the metaphor is drawn. In theological terms, reconciliation occurs ‘when someone is in Christ’ (2 Cor. 5:17), which elsewhere (e.g. Rom. 3:21–31; 6:1–11; Gal. 3:26–29) is correlated clearly with faith and baptism. The expansion of our present passage in Colossians 2:9–12 suggests that this is the right approach.’

Pao: ‘The references to “things on earth … things in heaven” certainly include those forces that continue to oppose him. This verse should therefore be read in light of 2:15, where Christ’s triumph over “rulers and authorities” is noted. Many rightly see this act of “reconciliation” as one that includes the idea of “pacification.” This idea was not foreign to the first-century Colossians. In the nearby Aphrodisias, there were panels in the North Portico that boasted about Augustus and the Roman Empire pacifying various people groups.’

Hendriksen remarks that a universalistic interpretation of this passage would bring it into conflict with a host of other scriptures, such as Ps. 1; Dan. 12:2; Matt. 7:13, 14; 25:46; John 5:28, 29; Phil. 3:18–21; and 2 Thess. 1:3–10.

Talbert agrees that ‘Col 1:20 sounds like universal reconciliation: “to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace through the cross.” Paul spoke of the inanimate creation as sharing in the salvation of humans (Rom 8:19–23). Origen included even the devil and his angels (= “things in the heaven”) in the reconciliation. Karl Barth (Church Dogmatics IV/1, 74) argued for the possibility of universal salvation, partly on the basis of Col 1:20. Wink, in our time, has a section in his Engaging the Powers titled “The Powers Will Be Redeemed,” in which he argues the same case espoused by Origen and Barth. Does “reconcile all things to himself” mean that there will be an ultimate reconciliation of all people and all hostile spiritual powers as well? It depends on how the language is understood. All things may be reconciled, but in Pauline thought the powers are reconciled through subjugation (1 Cor 15:24–28; Phil 3:21; Col 2:15). There is no reason to think, in Pauline terms, that it will be any different for sinful humans (1 Cor 6:9–11; 2 Cor 5:10; Gal 5:21; Eph 5:5; Col 3:6; O’Brien 1982, 56–57; Arnold 1995, 268; Lincoln 2000, 567).

Talbert cites several ancient sources to demonstrate that, in the thought-world of Paul and his readers, reconciliation ‘was not reduced only to making friends of one’s enemies. It also meant subduing enemies.’

Even William Barclay, though a convinced universalist, does not attempt to argue in favour of that doctrine from this text.  ‘The point is that the reconciliation of God extends not only to all persons but to all creation, animate and inanimate. The vision of Paul was a universe in which not only the people but the very things were redeemed. This is an amazing thought. There is no doubt that Paul was thinking of the Gnostics. We will remember that they, regarding matter as essentially and incurably evil, therefore regarded the world as evil. But, as Paul sees it, the world is not evil. It is God’s world and shares in the universal reconciliation.’ (My emphasis)

A further note on Piper's interpretation of this text
Noting that this text has been used to support universalism, John Piper responds by saying that this would bring Paul’s teaching here into conflict with texts such as Mt 25:46; 2 Thess 1:9; and Rev 14:11.  Piper further suggests that although the present text has been understood to mean that all things that now exist in the cosmos will be reconciled to God, this is incorrect: the true meaning is that all rebel elements will be cast into ‘outer darkness’ (Mt 8:12).  Such a destiny is not part of the new heavens and the new earth; it is ‘outside’ God’s new creation.

Piper cites the 19th-century commentator Heinrich Meyer:

Through the Parousia the reconciliation of the whole which has been effected in Christ will reach its consummation, when the unbelieving portion of mankind will be separated and consigned to Gehenna, the whole creation in virtue of the Palingenesia [new creation] (Matthew 19:28) will be transformed into its original perfection, and the new heaven and the new earth will be constituted as the dwelling of “righteousness” (2 Peter 3:13) and the “glory” of the children of God (Romans 8:21); while the demoniac portion of the angelic world will be removed from the sphere of the new world, and cast into hell. Accordingly, in the whole creation there will no longer be anything alienated from God and object of his hostility, but ta panta [all things] will be in harmony and reconciled with him.

Piper adds that Paul does not include, among the ‘all things’ that are to be reconciled to God those that are ‘under the earth’.  This, says Piper, is precisely the place to which all unreconciled elements will be consigned:

In God’s new universe (the new heaven and the new earth) there will be no whiff of rebellion. All of that is in another dimension. “Outside” in “darkness.” Real. But not part of the new reality. In the new reality all things are reconciled to Christ by his blood.

It seems that Piper (and Meyer) go some distance beyond what is actually revealed in Scripture.  The argument leads more naturally to an annihilationist conclusion: rather that inferring that all rebellious elements continue to have an existence outside the reality of God’s new creation, we would infer that they cease, eventually, to have any existence at all.

Salvation has a cosmic reach

This verse, and others like it, is thought to have important implications for the scope of salvation. ‘Who, or what, can be saved? The company of the saved consists of those individuals who respond to the preaching of the gospel in repentance and faith. (Ac 2:41 4:4) There are no limitations to the invitation to repent and believe; salvation is available to all races and classes of people. (Ac 10:34-45; Gal 3:28; Tit 2:11) Yet according to Paul, salvation is not merely a rescuing of certain individuals out of a doomed world but indeed a transformation of the whole cultural and cosmic created order. What is to be saved are not only individual selves but the whole social order. “Principalities” and “powers”-forces that are either political or supernatural-are said to have been created (Col 1:16) and reconciled (Col 1:20; Eph 1:10) through Christ. Salvation here attains a cosmic reach. Indeed, the whole created order longs for an exodus event: “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8:21 RSV; see Rom 8:19-23,28-29).’ (DBI)

But not automatically, and not without faith

‘Paul clearly believed that it was possible for human beings to reject God’s offer of salvation, and that at the last judgment some, having done so, would thereby be themselves rejected (see Rom. 1:18–2:16; 14:10; 2 Cor. 5:10; 2 Thess. 1:5–10). Since he never tells us how he would harmonize this with the reconciliation of ‘all things’, it is risky to guess what he might have said. But the present passage, and the parallel in 2 Corinthians 5, suggest two comments. First, he is emphasizing the universal scope of God’s reconciling purposes; nothing less than a total new creation is envisaged. Secondly, ‘reconciliation’, the re-establishing of a mutual relationship, cannot occur ‘automatically’ in the world of human relations from which the metaphor is drawn. In theological terms, reconciliation occurs ‘when someone is in Christ’ (2 Cor. 5:17), which elsewhere (e.g. Rom. 3:21–31; 6:1–11; Gal. 3:26–29) is correlated clearly with faith and baptism. The expansion of our present passage in Colossians 2:9–12 suggests that this is the right approach.’ (Wright)

Was this the only possible way?

‘They are too bold with God, who say, That he could not find out another way; who knows that, except God himself had told him so? Alas! how unmeet is the short line of our created understanding for such a daring attempt, as to fathom the unsearchableness of God’s omnipotent wisdom! To determine what God can, and what he cannot do! But we may say, and not forget to revere the Majesty of heaven, that the wisdom of God could not have laid the method of salvation more advantageous to the exalting of his own glorious name, and his poor creatures’ happiness, than in this expedient of reconciling them to himself by Christ our great peace-maker.’ (Gurnall)

Paul’s Goal in Ministry, 21-29

1:21 And you were at one time strangers and enemies in your minds as expressed through your evil deeds, 1:22 but now he has reconciled you by his physical body through death to present you holy, without blemish, and blameless before him—1:23 if indeed you remain in the faith, established and firm, without shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard.

Enemies in your minds – On mental depravation, see Rom 8:5-7; Eph 4:17; Tit 1:15.

As always, there is no ‘cheap grace’ in Paul’s teaching. Redemption is in order to holiness.

He has reconciled you

By Christ’s physical body – Notwithstanding all that Paul has said about Christ’s deity, he emphasises also our Lord’s real humanity. In doing so he is dismissing yet another aspect of the Colossian gnostic heresy, namely that the physical (in contrast to the spiritual) is evil.

Fit for heaven

 ‘By religion we become fitted for heaven, Col 1:21,22. We are made “meet” to enter there; we shall be presented there unblameable and unreproveable. No one will accuse us before the throne of God. Nor Satan, nor our own consciences, nor our fellow-men will then urge that we ought not to be admitted to heaven. Redeemed and pardoned, renewed and sanctified, the universe be satisfied that we ought to be saved, and will rejoice. Satan no longer charge the friends of Jesus with insincerity and hypocrisy; our own minds will be no longer troubled with doubts and fears; and holy angels will welcome us to their presence. Not a voice will be lifted up in reproach or condemnation, and the Universal Father will stretch out his arms and press to his bosom the returning prodigals. Clothed in the white robes of salvation, we shall be welcome even in heaven, and the universe will rejoice that we are there.’ (Barnes)

To present you – ‘That is, before God. The object of the atonement was to enable him to present the redeemed to God freed from sin, and made holy in his sight. The whole work had reference to the glories of that day when the Redeemed and the redeemed will stand before God, and he shall present them to his Father as completely recovered from the ruins of the fall.’ (Barnes)

Without blemish – ‘Not that in themselves they will not be deserving of blame, or will not be unworthy, but that they will be purified from their sins. The word…is applied to a lamb, 1 Pet 1:19; to the Saviour, Heb 9:14; and to the church, Eph 1:4; 5:27; Jude 1:24; Rev 14:5. It does not elsewhere occur. When the redeemed enter heaven, all their sins will have been taken away; not a spot of the deep dye of iniquity will remain on their souls, Rev 1:15; 7:14.’ (Barnes)

Free from accusation – ‘There will be none to accuse them before God; or they will be free from all accusation. The law will not accuse them-for the death of their Redeemer has done as much to honour it as theft own punishment would have done; God will not accuse them-for he has freely forgiven them; their consciences will not accuse them-for theft sins will all have been taken away, and they will enjoy the favour of God as if they had not sinned; holy angels will not accuse them-for they will welcome them to their society; and even Satan will not accuse them-for he will have seen that their piety is sincere, and that they are truly what they profess to be.’ (Barnes)

We must be settled in the faith

‘It is the duty of Christians to be settled in the doctrine of faith. It is the apostle’s prayer, 1 Pet 5:10, ‘The God of all grace stablish, strengthen, settle you.’ That is, that they might not be meteors in the air, but fixed stars. The apostle Jude speaks of ‘wandering stars, in Jude 13…Now, such as are not settled in religion, will, at one time or other, prove wandering stars; they will lose their former steadfastness, and wander from one opinion to another. Such as are unsettled are of the tribe of Reuben, ‘unstable as water,’ Gen 49:4; like a ship without ballast, overturned with every wind of doctrine. Beza writes of one Belfectius, that his religion changed as the moon. The Arians had every year a new faith. These are not pillars in the temple of God, but reeds shaken every way. The apostle calls them ‘damnable heresies.’ 2 Pet 2:1. A man may go to hell as well for heresy as adultery. To be unsettled in religion, argues want of judgement. If their heads were not giddy, men would not reel so fast from one opinion to another. It argues lightness. As feathers will be blown every way, so will feathery Christians… Therefore such are compared to children. Eph 4:14. ‘That we be no more children, tossed to and fro.’ Children are fickle sometimes of one mind sometimes of another, nothing pleases them long; so unsettled Christians are childish; the truths they embrace at one time, they reject at another; sometimes they like the Protestant religion, and soon after they have a good mind to turn Papists.’ (Watson, A Body of Divinity)

On the blessedness of not backsliding, see Pr 28:14; Isa 26:3,4.

This gospel has also been preached in all creation under heaven, and I, Paul, have become its servant.
1:24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I fill up in my physical body—for the sake of his body, the church—what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.

Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you – Better (grammatically, according to Wright, and also better in light of what immediately follows): ‘Now I rejoice in my suffering for your sake.’

I fill up in my physical body…what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ – Patzia remarks that

‘This is different from suffering for Christ (Phil. 1:29) or even sharing in Christ’s suffering (Phil. 3:10). Paul understands that his suffering somehow completes what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the church.’

It might be supposed the Paul’s means to infer that Christ’s suffering for the redemption of his people requires completion or supplement.  But Paul has just emphasised the sovereignty of Christ in all things.  Moreover, Scripture insists that he is the perfect and complete sacrifice for sins.

Patzia and others observe that the word for ‘sufferings’ (‘thlipsis‘, ‘afflictions’) is not used in the NT with reference to Christ’s atoning death.

Some interpreters think that, in the thought-world of the NT, the last days would be characterised by a definite amount of suffering on the part of God’s people.  Paul sees himself as a martyr who would contribute to this and thus usher in the new age.

Others see Paul’s words here as reflecting believers’ mystical union with Christ, whereby their sufferings are his sufferings (see Acts 9:4).

‘Given the context of this passage, which stresses the total sufficiency of Christ, as well as what he says elsewhere, (e.g., Rom 3:21-26; 2 Cor 5:17-21) Paul does not mean that Christ’s saving work on the cross is deficient in some respect. Rather, because the church is called to suffer for Christ, (2 Cor 4:7-12; 1 Thess 3:2-4) there is a divinely appointed requisite of suffering to be endured by Christians. Paul may also have in view here the sufferings which will accompany the endtimes, (Mt 24:21,22) a period ushered in by the death and resurrection of Christ. (Rom 13:11-14; 1 Cor 7:29) This also explains the reference to Paul’s suffering for the sake of the church (Eph 3:13; 2 Tim 2:10).  As a servant of the gospel, Paul rejoices in his opportunity to participate in the sufferings of God’s people. The passage does not mean that the church is a continuing incarnation of Christ whose members by suffering add saving merit beyond what Christ achieved.’ (New Geneva)

‘I take and to mean because; he says that he is joyful because in suffering he is associated with Christ. He desires nothing more blessed than such fellowship with Christ. He presents all believers in common with the comfort that in all tribulations, especially in those they suffer for the gospel, they share the cross of Christ, to the end that they may rejoice in sharing his blessed resurrection. Nay more, he affirms that in this way what is lacking in Christ’s own afflictions is completed. Rom 8:29 says the same thing: “Whom God has chosen, them he has predestined that they may conform to the image of Christ, who is the first-born among the brethren.” Moreover, we know that since the Head and the members are united, the name Christ sometimes includes the whole body. This is evident from 1 Cor 12:12, where, speaking of the church, the apostle finally concludes that being in Christ is like being a member in the human body. Therefore, as Christ suffered once in himself, so he now suffers every day in his members; and the sufferings which the Father decreed and appointed for his body are completed in the church.’ (Calvin)

Wright (The Day the Revolution Began) writes of exegetes ‘tiptoe[ing] through this text’,

‘in which Paul seems to be saying that his own sufferings are somehow completing something that was “lacking” in the Messiah’s sufferings.’

Wright suggests that their caution is due to the old controversy between the Roman Catholics and the Reformers, in which the former were understood as teaching that the Cross on its own was not sufficient to deal with human sin: some further remedy was required which the Mass and Purgatory between them provided.  The Reformers responded by insisting on what we often refer to ‘the completed work of Christ.’  In his commentary, Wright remarks that Paul is not thinking of Christ’s cross-work here (the word translated ‘afflictions’ is never used in that context).  He is, rather, viewing the entire vocation of Christ-and-the-church as including a call to suffer (thus in Rom 8:17 he can speak of suffering ‘with Christ’, and in Phil 3:10 of ‘the fellowship of his sufferings).  This interpretation is supported by Paul’s reference in the present verse to ‘Christ’s body, which is the church’).

Moo explains:

‘Because Paul’s apostolic ministry is an “extension” of Christ’s work in the world, Paul identifies his own sufferings very closely with Christ’s. These sufferings have no redemptive benefit for the church, but they are the inevitable accompaniment of Paul’s “commission” to proclaim the end-time revelation of God’s mystery (vv. 25–27).’
1:25 I became a servant of the church according to the stewardship from God—given to me for you—in order to complete the word of God, 1:26 that is, the mystery that has been kept hidden from ages and generations, but has now been revealed to his saints. 1:27 God wanted to make known to them the glorious riches of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

Mystery – This term occurs 27 times in the NT, of which 20 are in Paul’s writings.  Patzia explains that ‘here, as in 2:2, Ephesians 1:9; 3:3, 4, 9; 6:19, and Romans 16:25–26, it refers to an aspect of the gospel that had previously been hidden but now, according to the good pleasure of God, has been “disclosed to the saints”.’

Christ in you – This could mean ‘Christ among you’, making a close connection with ‘among the Gentiles’.  Wright: ‘The fact that the Jewish Messiah has made his abode among the nations of the world shows that God intends their ultimate glorification’.  Wright prefers, however, to understand this expression as being similar to that in Rom 8:10, ‘where the indwelling of Christ in believers is their guarantee of resurrection.’  Christ dwells ‘in us’ by his Spirit.

1:28 We proclaim him by instructing and teaching all people with all wisdom so that we may present every person mature in Christ. 1:29 Toward this goal I also labor, struggling according to his power that powerfully works in me.

Perfect – Although the word can be translated thus, the context suggests that the alternative rendering of ‘mature’ is more appropriate.

Here is an example of ‘Bible logic’, in which two apparent extremes are connected to give us a balanced whole. See also 2 Tim 2:7.

Who is to work towards spiritual maturity?

Everyone! This is in contrast to the Colossian heresy, which taught that people could be divided into two classes, hoi polloi and the elite, who alone were regarded as ‘the mature’.

There are different kinds of maturity: physical, intellectual, emotional, and so on. But spiritual maturity (which is what Paul has in mind here) is the most important.

If we ask, ‘How is spiritual maturity to be attained?’ the answer given here is that it is through the ministry of the word of God, the centre of which is Christ. It has been said that the Bible is God’s portrait of Christ, painted by the Holy Spirit.