Commentary on Colossians 1:11-20
This selection begins rather oddly in the middle of a sentence, and so for context we will have to go back and collect verses 9 and 10.
In verse 9, Paul begins his standard prayer that concludes his introduction and thanksgiving, a format that allows him to highlight some of the issues he will take up later in the letter, while at the same time directing the focus to God in these problem areas. And so Paul begins the prayer with a request for knowledge and wisdom for the Colossians, making his usual immediate transition from gift of God to intended outcome of that gift, flagged by a “so that,”– this time, “so that [they] might live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in knowledge of God” (NIV2011). It is at this point that we pick up in the middle of the sentence and finish Paul’s prayer (one has to wonder whether the liturgical calendar deliberately cut Paul’s single prayer in half!). And it is somewhat distressing to cut this prayer in half, because Paul immediately moves to the how — how they can fulfill his hopes of growth and life from verse 10, “strengthened with all power.” To divide the prayer as it has been could give the impression that Paul simply moves from gift to demand, while in truth it is gift, intended outcome followed immediately by the description of how one moves from gift to outcome.
And so we reach the climax of Paul’s prayer, which still keeps the focus on God as the one who strengthens his people to have endurance — a key word for Paul that often seems neglected in our postmodern context — confident in the Father’s rescue and promise of inheritance. I wonder what would happen in the world if Christians realized that in a very real sense we are the one percent, with a wealthy father and a certainty to our inheritance due us, and we don’t have to perpetuate the greed of the current capitalist system. We have wealth and spare. I fear often that we read Paul’s “inheritance” language and think, “yeah, yeah, heaven, future, spiritual, other, but I have to live now,” when Paul clearly uses it for definite encouragement for the here and now. This change of identity and promise of an inheritance was meant as very real encouragement for the here and now, and I think we lose something of our enthusiasm and confidence when we over-spiritualize it or leave it solely as something for the future that doesn’t affect us now. Paul meant it to embolden and encourage his hearers, and we should consider that as we teach and preach this. Indeed, verses 12 and 13 strengthen this notion, for they speak of the father having brought us into “the kingdom of light” and “the kingdom of the Son he loves,” meaning that we have access to his wealth now.
And what wealth. The entirety of the hymn of vv. 15-20 celebrates the resources we have available through the Son. This inheritance in the kingdom of the Son includes all things. In these six verses, the word for “all” appears eight times, hammering home the completeness of the work of the Son and how thoroughly we need not fear anything now. All things are under the supremacy of the Son; it is into his kingdom we have been brought, and I do think it would make a difference if we really believed this. All things are or will be brought under his supremacy, and we need fear nothing because we are part of the kingdom, already guaranteed an inheritance.
The Colossians Hymn should be the triumphant password of Christians everywhere — not celebrating oppression or exclusivism, for that would be to take this hymn entirely wrongly. Instead, we ought to celebrate Christ more, celebrate him in ways that invite others to meet him and want to be excited. Christians don’t always have the most celebratory reputation, but Paul can’t seem to find superlative enough language to celebrate the work of Christ on the cross in putting all things right.
And that is what we should celebrate. Because of the cross, we can live in great confidence and joy that all the things that are so wrong will be made right and that Christ has already begun putting all things right. By inviting us into his kingdom, we are partners and co-inheritors of all things made right, and so we should work for justice and the righting of wrongs; we should work for peace and reconciliation, but we do these things because we know that all of this will be done in Christ.
Because of the confidence expressed in this celebratory hymn, Christians can work harder and longer for justice than any others, because Christ is our model. Christ, who went to the cross, began the work of making peace there, and that is a work he will complete. And so we know we are on the “winning side” of this struggle, so we press on with joy and confidence, celebrating each victory in Christ’s name and mourning each act of oppression as an affront to Christ on the cross. Peace is our goal, and our leader went to the cross to secure it as the definite outcome. Let us be a people shaped by celebration, confidence, joy, and most of all, peace, because we know who Christ is and we are confident in his victory. As Julian of Norwich affirmed, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”