Commentary on Colossians 1:11-20
This is a tough passage to unravel. Like most of the letter to Colossae, it is theologically rich (and dense). It layers multiple ideas and themes one on top of the other to create a full picture of who exactly Paul believes Christ to be and what Christ has accomplished. And certainly here, near the end of his thanksgiving and prayer section of this letter, we see Paul passionately describing the exalted and victorious Christ, first in all things and over all creation. This makes this passage an excellent choice for Christ the King Sunday, even if a preacher might be tempted to skip over it, due to its inherent complexity and fairly unique vocabulary within the New Testament.
In this first part of this pericope, we see Paul reassure the Colossian church that they can be confident in the fact that Christ has already secured the victory over all the powers of evil. They will inherit the kingdom of God, like the “holy ones in the light” (verse 12). No matter what things might happen in the present, no matter what they will have to endure, they can do so joyfully, because the cosmic battle against the darkness has already been won (verse 13).
The reason Paul can make this claim with such confidence is rooted in who he believes Christ to be, which leads us to 1:15-20. These verses contain some of the highest Christology in the whole New Testament. Within biblical studies, this passage is believed to contain an early creedal statement of some sort, or maybe even an early Christian hymn, as the passage seems to be a recitation of who Christ is and what Christ did for the Church, and it contains vocabulary and imagery that is not found elsewhere in the Pauline corpus. For instance, there are two hapax legomena in these verses: prōteuō (to be first) in verse 18 and eirēnopoieō (to make peace) in verse 20. In fact, that whole phrase in verse 20, “to make peace through the blood of his cross” supports the argument that is an inherited creedal statement because Paul only refers to the blood of Jesus when discussing traditions that he inherited about the death of Christ (see Romans 3:25; 1 Corinthians 10:16; 11:25, 27; see also Ephesians 1:7; 2:13).1
By including this section, Paul offers his original readers comfort in who Christ is but he also offers us modern readers a powerful insight into what the earliest Christians believed about who Jesus was and what he accomplished. It also allows us to see that even in the earliest days of the Church, Christians were already developing core shared beliefs about Jesus that contained a fairly high Christology.2
In fact, we find here the powerful claims that Christ is unequivocally the Creator, as well as the firstborn of all creation. He is also the head of the church and the one who has reconciled all things to God. These two roles, Creator and Reconciler, are crucial to Paul’s entire argument in Colossians and to what he understands the good news of Jesus Christ to be. Through Christ, the all-powerful creator who is over all things and through whom all things hold together, the Colossians (and all who hold fast to the good news), are reconciled to God and forgiven of their sins. It is this image of Christ as Reconciler that Paul picks up and interprets in greater detail in the rest of chapter 1.
But as we return to this passage and its connection to Christ the King Sunday, there is one particularly interesting detail about this text that should be noted. In 9 verses, the word “all” (pas in the Greek) is used ten times. In verse 11, it is used twice as Paul prays that the Colossians would be able to endure all things with all the strength that comes from Christ. And who is this Christ? He is the one in whom all things are created, who is before all things and in whom all things hold together. He is first of all things and all the fullness of God dwells in him. And all things are reconciled to God through him.
The repeated use of pas creates a nice rhythmic pattern to this passage (fitting for an early hymn) but also creates a deep sense of confidence in who Christ is. Nothing is outside of Christ. There is no situation that the Colossians might face that Christ is not already there. It is the reason they can have endured joyfully. Nijay Gupta argues that Paul does this intentionally and in fact he is “tenaciously emphatic that, whatever the problem, Christ is the solution.”3
And so over and over again, we see Paul assure this congregation:
Christ is in all.
All has been forgiven.
And all will be well.
- For more on the nature of this creedal statement and more in-depth analysis of the Greek, see Eduard Lohse, Colossians and Philemon: a Commentary On the Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1971), 40-42.
- There is a great affirmation of faith based on this passage and 1 Corinthians 15, another early creedal statement that can be found in the United Methodist Hymnal p. 888. This could be a good resource for worship planning if your faith community usually recites an affirmation of faith during the service.
- See Nijay K. Gupta, Colossians. (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2013), 51