Colossians 1:21-23 Commentary: Paul’s Gospel, Part 2

21 And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him— 23 provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.  NRSV

In this passage Paul completes his restatement of the gospel to the Colossians. He shifts from talking generally about the preeminence of Christ and the reconciliation between God and creation that Christ has made possible, to talking specifically about what Christ has done for the Colossians.

Colossians 1:21-22 Commentary

Paul begins, in Col. 1:21-22, by noting that the Colossians themselves are part of the creation that God was pleased to reconcile to himself through Christ’s act on the cross, and that they have, in fact, been so reconciled since they have accepted the gospel. He notes that they were “once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds…” There was a relational rift between God and the Colossians, characterized by a hostility they bore toward him. This hostility might be the Colossians rejection of God’s authority in favor of the powers of darkness. This estrangement and hostility was expressed by their evil deeds. Their deeds demonstrated that they rejected God’s authority insofar as their deeds failed to conform to God’s will. However, Christ has now reconciled them back to God through his death on the cross.

The phrase Paul uses to describe this reconciliation is somewhat puzzling: Christ has reconciled the Colossians “in his fleshly body,” or translated more literally, “in the body of his flesh.” Does this mean that Christ’s fleshly body was the means of reconciliation? Probably, though it seems that Christ’s death is more properly the means of reconciliation here, since Paul says they were reconciled “through death.” Perhaps Paul’s meaning is simply that both Christ’s flesh and its death—i.e., the death of Christ’s fleshly body—was the means of reconciliation, which seems theologically straightforward enough. Still, the language of being reconciled “in his fleshly body” seems to suggest a bit more. It is almost as if the Colossians have been taken up into Christ’s body and hidden in it, dying with it on the cross. If this is right, then it might make further sense of 1.22b, which says that Christ’s aim in this reconciliation was to present the Colossians “holy and blameless and irreproachable” before himself. If the Colossians were hidden in Christ’s flesh, then in some sense to regard them would be to regard Christ, who is, in fact, holy, blameless, and irreproachable. In short, the imagery of being reconciled “in” Christ’s fleshly body might be a dramatic symbol to illustrate the fact that, through his bodily death, Christ has made the Colossians holy, blameless, and irreproachable in his sight, since, in some sense, they also died in Christ’s flesh, and so paid the price for their hostile minds and evil deeds.

If commentators are correct that the Colossians were tempted by some proto-Gnostic teaching (though, as I noted before, not full-fledged second-century Gnostic teaching), Paul’s description of the Colossians’ condition prior to reconciliation (hostility of mind) and of the means of reconciliation (Christ’s fleshly body) seems crafted to counter that teaching. The Gnostics believed that non-material mind or spirit was good while the material world was evil. Their aim, then, was to liberate their spirits from the material world by gaining secret knowledge of the spiritual world. However, in Col. 1:21-22a Paul inverts this teaching, suggesting that what was evil was the Colossians’ hostility of mind, expressed through their deeds, and that the remedy for this evil was Christ’s “fleshly body.” Thus, something material (Christ’s flesh) has rescued them from something immaterial (their hostile minds), turning the Gnostic teaching on its head.

Colossians 1:23 Commentary

In Col. 1:23 Paul moves on to note a condition on the Colossians being presented holy, blameless, and irreproachable before Christ: they must continue in faith. Specifically, they must be “securely established and steadfast” in their faith, “without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel…” What is this “hope promised by the gospel”? Again, as in Col. 1:5, what is promised by the gospel is not the having of an attitude of hope, but rather an object of hope. As we will learn in Col. 1:27, this object is Christ, “the hope of glory.” Paul’s idea here does not seem to be that heaven or “glory” is a pleasurable state to be hoped for, and that Christ is the ticket to heaven. Rather, his idea seems to be that Christ himself—or, the consummation of our already reconciled relationship to Christ—is the object of our hope, and that this attainment of Christ will only be realized in heaven. In short, our hope is not for glory but rather for Christ himself. This object of hope, then, is what Paul says the Colossians must not shift from: they must steadfastly hope for union with Christ in glory. Paul’s repeated reference to “hope” in Colossians 1 suggests that some in the church may have felt hopeless. To encourage them, Paul reminds them that their ultimate hope—union with Christ—has been promised to them by God and so it will be realized, provided that they continue to aim their lives toward it.

Interestingly, in Col. 1:23b Paul claims that this gospel that the Colossians heard “has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.” As in Col. 1:20, the cosmic scope of the gospel is in view. There, Paul told us that Christ’s work has made possible the reconciliation of all created things to God. Presumably, this cosmic reconciliation would somehow be effected by the universal proclamation of the gospel mentioned here. But, how has the gospel been proclaimed to fish, birds, and mammals? After all, they are some of the “creatures under heaven.” It is not clear, but what does seem clear is that it cannot be through words. Only humans (and perhaps angels) are equipped to receive a verbal gospel. Paul’s statement here is reminiscent of Romans 1:19-20, where he suggests that even inanimate creation—mountains, oceans, stars, etc.—proclaim the gospel, in a certain sense (or at least, “what can be known about God.”). It seems words are only one form of God’s proclamation.

Another puzzle: does Paul really mean that the gospel has reached every creature under heaven? If so, it seems the gospel has already been proclaimed to every human being, making nonsense of Paul’s missionary efforts. Thus, this cannot be what Paul means. The best reading here is not that everyone has already heard the gospel, but rather that the gospel has been proclaimed, and that its intended audience is “every creature under heaven.” This reading leaves open the possibility that the task of actually communicating the gospel to its intended audience remains. Hence, Paul views himself as a “servant of this gospel,” (Col. 1:23c) since there is still work to be done in spreading it to every creature under heaven. I take it that the content of this gospel is what Paul has just summarized in Col. 1:13-22.

Colossians 1:21-23 Lessons

What can we learn from this passage? It strikes me that contemporary Christians are susceptible to an error something like the proto-Gnostic error Paul seems to be addressing in this passage. We can tend to view “the spiritual” as superior to “the material.” After all, 2 Peter 3:10-13 tells us that the earth will be burned up in the end, so material stuff can seem relatively unimportant. Moreover, our bodily urges—to eat, to drink, and to have sex—seem to be the source of so many kinds of sin that the “flesh” can seem downright wicked. However, Paul reminds us here that we have been reconciled to God in Christ’s “fleshly body,” and that the spiritual (or at least the mental) is the ultimate source of our sin, not our mere bodies. I hear this teaching as a reminder to embrace and care for the material things God has created, including ourselves, other people, and the world around us. So, go get some exercise, give somebody a hug, and recycle a bottle or two.

It further strikes me that we Christians often misrepresent the hope of our gospel. In the first instance, what we should hope for is not a life of pleasure and relief from pain in heaven, though it seems heaven will include these things. Rather, our first and highest hope should be to encounter Christ—to finally meet the Man that has reconciled us to God. Too often our thirst to know Christ is minimal at best. Our western (especially American) consumer culture has taught us that ease and comfort is the aim of our lives. We tend to think of heaven as the ultimate realization of this aim, and so we hope for that. But, Paul tells us to hope for a Person. We are to hope for knowledge of Christ, face-to-face. May Paul’s magnificent portrait of Christ in this and the previous passage stir us to greater love, greater hope, and greater longing for our Lord. And may we strive to know him better even here and now.