He’s never been known for his crystal clarity, but Paul, (often called the Apostle Paul), has a way of captivating you with the propulsive thunder of his rhetoric. Sure, there are elements of his writing that make a 21st century Christian cringe, (behavioral guides for slaves?!), but there’s also a cosmic vision of Christ as liberating conqueror of all those powers that limit human flourishing. In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, that vision is front and center as he uncovers an anthropology that sees us find our end ‘in Christ.’
I returned to Colossians for a season out of a desire to dust off my old Greek skills and to go deeper into the theology of this rich book. It’s a good candidate for a mediocre translator to tackle because 1) it’s short at four chapters, and 2) there aren’t a lot of textual issues that would raise the question of what the most trustworthy text is.
I brought along two companions for the journey. David Bentley Hart’s The New Testament: A Translation was helpful because he chose the obstinate path of sticking close to the grammar of the Greek text, even if it meant leaving in awkward phrasing and construction. Paul gets no prettying up from Hart. The other fellow-traveler was Scot Mc Knight, whose 2018 entry in the New International Commentary on the New Testament, The Letter to the Colossians, turned out to be just what I hoped—a great balance between reliance on good scholarship and solid exposition.
McKnight sees Colossians as the work of the imprisoned Paul writing to a mostly Gentile community that is struggling with the dark powers of the age. “Tribalism and nationalism and imperialism,” (no strangers to our world either), are temptations threatening the revolutionary message of the Christian community. Pauls’ counter-claim is that Christ stands at the center of every discussion about reality because “God has conquered the powers, delivered all humans from sin and its powers, and reconciled the entire cosmos to himself in, and through, and under Christ.” (3)
Those modifiers—all and entire—Paul repeats like a drumbeat throughout this letter. Even the household code in chapter 3 that seems to offer such a retrograde vision of gender roles and economic inequality has to be seen through the lens of how Christ has throughly transformed every relationship. We would surely write them differently today, but Paul, in his own way, was showing how every role we play is subsumed within an understanding that we are in Christ and that Christ is in us (and every part of the cosmos).
As in the opening lines of the Gospel of John, Paul makes grand claims about Christ:
He, this Christ, is the embodiment and icon of the unseen God, firstborn of all creation. In Him, all things in heaven and earth were created—what you see and all that remains hidden to your eyes, thrones, powers, rulers, authorities—it’s all created through Him and is destined to move ultimately to Him. Before all things, He was. The coherence that all things have, which you can’t fathom, is in Him. He is head of the body, the gathered Church, the original, firstborn of the dead, and therefore first place in all things. (1:15-18, author’s translation)
You hear the drumbeat of ‘all.’ But there is a flood tide rising here as well. There is movement toward a richer reality yet, a deepening of the experience of God. What Paul is overcome by is that he is privileged to see something greater yet than the disciples with Jesus saw. In fact, “I know a Fullness greater yet than Christ’s because his body, the Church, grows. I am a servant of the Church. I have this peculiar mission to know the Fullness, the Word of God, to your benefit.” (1:24b-25)
I capitalize Fullness because it is more than just the pouring in of the Gentiles into this absolutely Jewish phenomenon. It is another term for God in Colossians. As Paul tells us:
In Christ, the Fullness was pleased to dwell. The Fullness reconciled all things to Itself through Him, made peace by the blood of the cross through Him, and did this for the sake of all things without regard, among earthlies and heavenlies. (1:19-20)
This apostle to the Gentiles is filling up the storehouse with all that rightly belongs to God. And if we feel less than complete it is only because we have not realized where our life truly is, have not comprehended that the mystery of the universe is not some esoteric secret, but Christ revealed on the cross. “The Fullness of Deity dwells in Him bodily, and you find your Fullness in Him, and He is the head of every Rule and Power.” (2:9-10)
I’m not one to wantonly capitalize nouns and pronouns in Scripture. Jesus can get by with a ‘he.’ But Paul heightens the stakes here, luring us into a scene in which a battle of the titans is taking place. Except the outcome is assured, and so is our ultimate revelation as the God-connected people we have always been but have usually denied. It says so right there in one of my favorite verses in the Bible: “You died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, your life, is revealed, you will be revealed, too, together with Him in glory.” (3:3-4)
As a terribly restless Christian who has undergone a kind of extended adolescence in figuring out who I want to be when I grow up, it’s a relief to know where we do end up. Not just me, but ‘all’ of us. Greek, Jew, slave, free—no matter. “Christ is All in All” (3:11)
Which makes you wonder: What is left for us to do? Paul will tell you. There’s no shortage of admonition in Colossians.
So…put on affection, goodness, humility, gentleness, forbearance. Bear with one another. Forgive one another if anyone has a complaint against you. The Lord forgave you—so forgive. And above all else—love—the perfect bond. Let Christ’s peace rule in your hearts. You were called into Christ as one body, so grow into a thankful people. (3:12-15)
O, and sing. That seems to be important, too.
If you’d like to read my free-form translation of Colossians, you can find it here. But don’t let my poor words get in the way of hearing that dynamo of the first century who could not shake the sense that Christ had changed everything. And still can. And still does. And has always done.