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The Sweeping View of the Gospel in Colossians

June 22nd, 2020 | 9 min read

By Vika Pechersky

Paul’s letter to the Colossians rarely gets the attention it deserves. It may not offer the therapeutic comfort of Philippians or a much-needed guidance amidst mounting ethical concerns as in his Corinthian letters. However, in Colossians, Paul offers one of the most comprehensive explanations of the gospel — a sweeping view that brings together two main events of human history, that of creation and of redemption of the world through Jesus Christ. Therefore, it is not surprising that Colossians contains rich theology of the person of Christ, all in the context of the gospel’s theme.

We should begin with the context in which the letter was written. Paul begins this letter with the extensive exposition of the gospel. It occupies most of the first chapter— Col. 1:3-23. A careful analysis of this passage suggests that Paul frames this section by two nearly identical passages (1:5-8 and 1:21-23). They serve as bookends defining Paul’s train of thought and provide an interpretive key to the meaning of his words between them.

In both cases, Paul talks about the gospel, the hope it gives, and its triumphant spread around the world. Significantly, these are the only two places in Colossians where Paul uses the word “gospel.” Thus, these bookend passages denote the beginning and the end of a single thread of thought where Paul discusses the meaning of the gospel, its hope, as well as its scope.

The basic meaning of the word is well known; the gospel means “good news.” Nevertheless, it appears that in Colossians, it corresponds to a much broader concept than may be suggested by the mere denotation of the word and serves as a shorthand for a vision of created order (reality) with Jesus firmly at its center. Therefore, the meaning of the gospel becomes evident when one follows Paul’s train of thought and derives the meaning from literary analysis of the whole passage.

The Gospel of Truth

In Col.1:5-8 Paul uses two specific descriptions for the gospel. He calls it the word of truth (v.5) and the grace of God in truth (v.6). Why invoke truth, we might ask? The concept of truth is often summoned to draw a contrast with falsehood (Prov. 8:6-8, 12:17). The truth corresponds to the reality of the way things are; the falsehood distorts it. The gospel of truth, therefore, stands in opposition to the false ways of understanding the world that we live in and its relationship to its creator God. As it becomes evident later in Paul’s letter, the Colossian church was besieged by other philosophies eager to explain God, the order of the world, and alleged ways to achieve spiritual maturity (2:8-23).

There is another way the word truth is used elsewhere in the Bible, primarily in Psalms, that may have influenced Paul’s choice of words. In Psalms, the truth is paired up exclusively with God’s lovingkindness as divine attributes revealed in the covenantal relationship, which the writers of psalms call upon to save and preserve the faithful (Ps. 25:9-11, 40:10-12, 57:2-4, 61:6-8). In Psalms, truth and lovingkindness guard and protect God’s people from the mire of sins and iniquities.

Therefore, the gospel emerges as a proclamation of the truth that people can hear, understand, and learn (1:5-7). It comes from God and offers a genuine path for human life within the created order and its relationship to God while also saving and preserving the faithful as they walk through life on earth (1:23).

The Scope of the Gospel

Paul refers to the global scope of the gospel in both bookend passages — 1:6 and 1:23. He tells the Colossians that the gospel is reaching not only them in the middle of the Roman Empire but is in fact spreading even further — around the whole world. It is being proclaimed in all creation under heaven as Paul writes these very words (1:23).

The way Paul describes the progress of the gospel in 1:6 is especially curious. He says that it is bearing fruit and increasing around the world. G. K. Beale connects this phrase to Gen. 1:28, where God blessed Adam and Eve and gave them the mandate to be fruitfulmultiply, fill the earth, and subdue it.[1]  The connection between the gospel and the creation is evident in both Col.1:6 and 1:23, which means that Paul links the spread of the gospel to the creation of mankind and fulfillment of the mandate that God has given them.

Thus, we can conclude that for Paul the gospel carries a true representation of reality for human life because of its universal nature. It is relevant to all descendants of Adam and Eve taking us back to the purpose for which God created the world and humanity in it — to fulfill our mandate and be true image-bearers of God the Creator. Paul directly refers to the idea of image-bearing later, in Col. 3:11.

This conclusion invites a legitimate question. How does the gospel deliver the true representation of the created order for human life? The short answer is that the gospel connects the creation of humans to the incarnation, redemptive death, and a triumphant resurrection of Jesus Christ, which in turn produced a new creation — a new humanity. This brings us to the heart of our current passage.

The Heart of the Gospel

I have long been contemplating why Paul places one of the most significant depictions of Jesus (Col. 1:15-20) in his letter to the Colossians. More precisely, why does it appear in this form, and in this part of the epistle? Looking at this whole passage (Col. 1:3-23) through the lens of the creation narrative may help gain insight into what Paul intends to convey. If the gospel were mainly about Jesus’s work on the cross to achieve our individual redemption and forgiveness of sins, Paul could have very well stopped at 1:14. Even if we appeal to our creation narrative lens and the gospel were about undoing the curse of the fall, as we see in verses 13 and 14, nothing else would need to be added. Verses 15-20 may be interpreted merely as a tangent, albeit a poetic one.

Why does Paul launch into doxology, proclaiming the cosmic supremacy of Jesus and the creation of the church in the middle of the gospel exposition? Surely, this is the case of spontaneous worship brought upon by the Holy Spirit as Paul wrote his letter, but I also suggest that these well-known verses are not merely a random act of worship or a poetic tangent, but rather represent the heart of Paul’s discussion of the gospel.

From the beginning of chapter one, Paul slowly unwrapped the concept of the gospel by connecting it to the creation account and the mandate for which God created humans. He also pointed to the redemption of humanity and forgiveness of sins that God had achieved through Jesus Christ, thus restoring those who believe to what humans have lost in the wake of the fall. We are no longer cast outside of Eden; the Father brought us back into the realm of Jesus’s Kingdom. Paul does not stop there but brings us further to the very center of the gospel — to the person of Jesus, the Son of God, the King, the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of the world, the Second Adam relaunching renewed humankind into fulfilling God’s mandate to be fruitful, multiply, and cover the whole earth.

Verses 15-20 present Jesus as the center of the cosmos, the ordered universe. His incarnation, death, and resurrection produced a reality-shaping event and a new way of being. The fact that Paul’s exposition of the gospel includes this cosmic vision of Jesus in relation to the created order of the world shows once again that for Paul the gospel carries a vision of reality that we are now able to participate in.

Thus, in Jesus Christ the gospel of truth and grace offers a genuine human existence fashioned after the person of Jesus that we can participate in by means of redemption and forgiveness of sins. Consequently, the gospel is the agent of redemption and the creation of new humanity in Jesus Christ. It is truth being spoken and proclaimed, which goes out into the world, creates new life by bringing people into the life of Christ (3:3-4).

The Hope of the Gospel

In Colossians, Paul makes it clear that the good news of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection does not just negate our sinful past; Jesus offers a new way of life that moves us forward. The gospel speaks equally about our past, our present, and our future. This is why in Col. 3:10-11 Paul talks about living in the present as a new creation — a church — a new and redeemed society — being renewed in the image of our Creator with “a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.” He also speaks of the future hope of the gospel (1:5) stored for us in heaven. In Col. 3:3-4 Paul brings this hope into full view — a dramatic picture of our resurrection and glorification together with Jesus when he returns. On that day, we will share in his glory. Until then, we are awaiting the day of revelation while our lives are hidden with Jesus in God.

The gospel is indeed the good news. However, the goodness of the gospel is defined first by the person of Jesus who encapsulates the good and then by the new life that he gives. In its essence, the gospel is the proclamation of Jesus Christ, the ruler of the world, and of giving of himself to us — his death for our sins, his rule over the entire world, his resurrection, and a renewed eternal life. The gospel invites people into the existence of Christ to experience the life that swallows up death —a life where the redemption and the forgiveness of sins are just the beginning.

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[1] G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 264.

Vika Pechersky

Vika Pechersky is the Submissions Editor at Mere Orthodoxy. She holds an MTS degree from Loyola University Maryland. She lives with her husband and three kids in the Washington DC area.