All in All: Theological Themes in Colossians

William L. Hendricks  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 16 - Fall 1973

The phrase “all in all” (Col. 3:11b) may well refer to a summing up of things. For example, one might say, all in all it has been a good year. The words may also be a confession of an ultimate allegiance: “Christ is all in all.” The two ways of seeing the phrase are not mutually exclusive. In Colossians we have both a brief summary of the elementary expressions and demands of the Christian faith and one of the most powerful Christian confessions in Scripture.

The conditions which occasioned the writing of the epistle were those of separation, fragmentation, frustration. Epaphras, who had been instrumental in bringing the congregations of the Lycus Valley into being (1:7, 4:12-13), was with Paul in Ephesus or Rome—separation. The simple and direct word of God’s grace in Jesus Christ was being contested by those who brought the “wisdom of men” and “vain philosophies” (2:8)-fragmentation. In these circumstances Paul was hindered from direct presence with a congregation whom he did not know and to whom he was sending both an epistle and a former slave to be reconciled with his master (Col. 4:9; Philemon)—frustration, In the midst of these pressing circumstances—separation, fragmentation, frustration-there comes a clear expression of the simplicity and unity of the Christian faith. The backdrop is one of double vision and glaring contrasts. There are two worlds and there seem to be two ways of attaining God’s world. But the focus of the letter sharpens and captivates the reader with the unitive insistence that there is one way, one Lord, and His one body.

In brief, the history of Christian existence and the essence of the Christian faith is encapsulated in this small epistle. Classically, we call the double vision of two worlds cosmology, or perhaps better ontology—the doctrine of what really is and what really is important. Historically the struggle of complexity and simpleness is that between heresy and straight thinking and right opinion (orthodoxy). The affirmation of one Lord and His sacrifice on man’s behalf is called christology and soteriology. The one body is concerned with ecclesiology and the ordinance which first vividly portrays the Christian life as baptism. These will comprise our outlines: two worlds (this fallen world, God’s world); two ways (the complicated demands of religious requirements vs. the fullness of truth in Christ); one Lord (whose person embodied Godness and whose death brings life); and one body (the participation in Christ and baptism, the formal public act whereby one begins that new, corporate relationship).

This is a timeless material stated in ancient speech, but readily translated into modem parlance. Fragmentation, confusion and the utter diffuseness of man’s existence today within the churches calls for a long and careful look at an epistle devoted to defining the issues and clarifying the solution.



New Testament expressions of theology always move from a specific to the general. God, the father of Jesus Christ, has grasped the life of Paul and given him an apostleship (1:1-2). From this very definite, particular circumstance a complete theology begins. This God moves dramatically in the world by vouchsafing and consolidating the hope of those who trust in Him (1:5). Their hope is kept in the heavens.

In verse five an otherworldly element has been introduced—God’s heaven or God’s world. The idea of heaven can be badly misunderstood by modem Christians, and the idea of otherworldliness has been a modern stock in which theology has been held to be pilloried from all sides.

Ancient man had no problems in acknowledging that be­ yond the empirical realities of life there lay some deeper meaning, the fates, the gods, strong powers of good and evil. If anything, the recipients of the Colossian letter believed or were informed too widely, although not accurately, about such powers. For the Colossians it was feasible that the heavens contained the power of darkness (1:13). There were things seen, but as vivid, if not more so, were the things unseen—spiritual powers, lordly forces, rulers and authorities (1:16). These were mysterious forces withholding their mysteries from men, and there were persuasive arguments about the influence of the unseen world on the visible world (2:3-4). Certainly the elemental forces of the unseen world had human emissaries at work in the church of Colossae. Emissaries, who promised a “fuller way,” a more complete revelation, a more involved plan of salvation (2:9-10). Even the law of Jehovah God involving the rite of circumcision was a personified oppressor to add debts to what was already written against man. The combined forces of oppression and evil rallied against one lone man on a Judean cross (2:11-15).

In turn, their demands on men for abstinence, observance of special rules, the scrupulous keeping of religious rituals seemed to make sense when one asked how he could be at peace with these powers (2:23). It stands to reason the gods of that world (the invisible world) would have big plans and make exorbitant requests of men so that men might attain their mysteries and measure up to the Powers’ ideas of what men should be (this may be established as the negative, converse meaning of 3:10) . There were indeed two worlds in the first century, a visible world and an invisible one; a world on earth and a world in heaven. It is most important to observe these worlds were not temporally different. They were not past and future. It was not, for the Colossians, that the earthly world existed now and the invisible world was coming up after this one. Their problem could have been eased, or at least postponed by such an arrangement. Their dilemma was that they had two worlds to deal with at the same time.

Let us return to modern man. The charges of “otherworldliness” must be faced. One hears that otherworldliness cuts ethical sensitivity and moral motivation for this world. The catch­ all phrase which is used to describe such charges is pie-in-the­ sky-by-and-by. Religion, with its palliative promises, has be­ come the opiate of the people anesthetising them to accept social inequities in the present in exchange for future rewards after death (Marx). Otherworldliness was the instrument used by established religious institutions in collusion with corrupt princes to prevent the liberation and development of mankind (Auguste Compte). Otherworldliness is the white man’s umbrage to obfuscate his racism and keep the black man down (Malcolm X). These charges have emerged with various effects in western civilization for the past 300 years. By and large the caricatures have been justified, and the sharp and of ten stinging response of Christendom has provided the justification of the critic. But we are talking about two radically different things, and if evangelical Christianity seeks to recapture the essence of New Testament faith it will be quick in asserting the difference.

In Colossae the two worlds are simultaneous. The invisible world overshadowed the visible. The “heresy” which raised the problem in Colossae had nothing to do with this world here and now which is physical versus another world which is coming in the future which is invisible. The two were conjoined, concentric, tangental. They were not equal. The edge of strength was on the side of the heavenly world. What took place there had shattering ramifications for what was transpiring in the visible world and for what man could do to be at peace with both dimensions of his existence.

In the social complexities of western man when the two worlds have been separated and made sequential, there has indeed arisen much mischief and a basic distortion of the meaning of New Testament “otherworldliness.”

The real dilemma of modern man, in contradistinction to medieval and Reformation man, is not his f ears about the future life and the world to come. Modern man’s problem is the inability to believe in any world but the present one, the earthly, pragmatic here and now.[1]For the progressive steps which lead to this loss of transcendence see John Herman Randall, Jr. The Making of the Modern Mind. rev. ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1940) and for the problems this has posed for Christians to speak of God in an age that denies transcendence see Langdon Gilkey’s Naming the Whirlwind: The Renewal of God-Language. (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1969). The radicality of this dilemma must be acknowledged. If, indeed, modern man cannot believe in any “world” but the visible one about him, Colossians has no relevance for him, for the problems and perplexities con­ fronting the Colossians as well as the solutions and assurances suggested by Paul are all predicated on a two world view of reality. The problem is not eased by Christians who continue to press for two worlds in a purely sequential manner and to press in such a way that the coming world is a grotesque and graphic picture of the present one, merely painted larger.

If Colossians is to be meaningful today two things are required: (1) To confront modern man with the consequences of his inability to believe in two worlds, and (2) to redefine the invisible world in terms of ethics rather than futuristic eschatology.

(1) “Modern man” will have to be more clearly defined and identified, and the sources of his inability to believe will have to be checked. Which “modern man” does not believe in transcendence and why? Is such a man fully aware of the consequences when he avows that only what is visible and tangible to his sensibilities, experiences and logical extrapolations is real. Has modern man refused all transcendent implications? If so there can be no talk of abstract virtues and ultimate bases for ethical action. Such a man must take sole responsibility for what is and what ought to be. It is this writer’s opinion that such a modern man who cannot believe in any dimension of existence besides the crudely observable is an aves rara (a rare bird).

(2) If Colossians is to be meaningful today Christians must recapture the sense of living in two worlds, of being influenced finally from beyond, of having ultimate allegiance to what is more real than fingers can touch, than lips can taste, than bodies can handle (Col. 2:21). But they must express the reality of that world in terms that men of this world can touch, taste and handle. Those who proclaim that Christ is all in all (Col. 3: 11) must incarnate His virtues among and within themselves (chapters three and four of Colossians are given to precise and pragmatic expressions of this). Christians must give up their temporal otherworldliness, which gives rise to all types of modern Colossian heresies (illustrated in the esoteric prophecies abounding in religious circles today) in favor of New Testament otherworldliness, which radically incarnates what the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has imaged and proposed for His creation (Col. 3: 10). Otherworldliness must be redefined in terms of ethics rather than futuristic eschatology.

It is essential that the Christian community which proposes to draw resources from the biblical norms believe very much in two worlds. It is also essential that the invisible world be rightly discerned in the way of the simplicity of the Gospel.



The Christian community in order to translate Colossians for its own efficacy and in order to incarnate its meaning for modern men gives ultimate allegiance to the God who is “behind” this world. But it must deny that there are two ways or more in which man must relate to Him.

The way in which the Christian community understood the heavenly world, God’s world and his requirements for men was the crux of the problem at Colossae. Paul insisted on simplicity—Christ only. Those disturbing the Colossians had other ways, intricate systems, additional nostrums to be fulfilled.[2]In the last analysis nothing is known of the Colossian heresy except what may be garnered from Colossians itself. There are Jewish insights which pre­ceed this work which may shed light upon angel meditation, etc. (Cf. C. F. D. Maule The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary, “The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Colossians and to Philemon,” Cambridge: The University Press, 1962), and there are Greek gnostic systems which developed after this epistle which were possibly dependent on it ( cf. Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, sec. ed. rev. Boston: Beacon Press, 1963). For a concise statement of Gnosticism and its diverse expressions and difficult chronological problems, see also Edwin Yamauchi, Pre-Christian Gnosticism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973). What is important for our purpose is to draw from the text itself the complexities proposed to the Colossians and to contrast them with the unitive simplicity proposed by Paul as the substance of the Christian message.

The complexities suggested by the Colossian heretics included the ideas that there were spiritual powers (thronoi), lords (Kuriotetes), rulers (archai) and authorities (exousiai, 1:16). These may have been seen as evil, rulers of the kingdom of darkness (Col. 1:12); or, in other instances, they might be benevolently disposed to men, revealing to them the mysteries required for salvation (Col. 1:25-27). The secrets of God must be unlocked by secrets passed on by the powers (Col. 2:3) in order for man to be what God intended (Col. 1:28). These ruling spirits of the universe (stoikeia, Col. 2:8) were behind the deceits of men and the teachings handed down from men. In the elaborate requirements of the powers the fullness of God (pleroma) was to be found (Col. 2:9). Men informed by these powers and armed with the mysteries would bear much fruit (Col. 1:6).[3]Fruitbearing was a famous gnostic phrase, cf. Moule, in loco.

To the above description, familiar to the Greek pagans of the Lycus Valley, were added the debts of the law, familiar to those of Jewish background (Col. 2:14). These debts were in their way as oppressing as the weight of the personified powers. Sectarian Judaism also gave evidence of belief in the elemental rulers as those angels who kept not their first estate or the angels who gave the law and therefore were appointed keepers of the times and seasons of the year as prescribed by law (Col. 2:8).[4]Cf. Moule, in loco. The elaborate rules and religious rites of the holy days, the observance of the festival of the new moon, and the requirements of keeping the sabbath were given by the elemental spirits and passed on by men. These rules included fasting, mortification of the flesh, and other ascetic practices (Col. 2: 16, 22-23). Humanly speaking, the system was as complicated and esoteric as a man could want, in order to feel that salvation was a costly venture. Salvation was no easy prize among the Colossian heretics. The system had all the trappings of human wisdom and philosophical requirements (Col. 2:8, 23).

It was this wrong view of the heavenly world Paul strove hard to correct. In the face of this maze of requirements and theosophical systems Paul patented his uncluttered gospel.

The gospel of Jesus Christ was bearing fruit, not merely in the Lycus Valley where even heretics could claim their converts, but throughout all the world (Col. 1:6). There is indeed a fullness of God (pleroma). It comes from the Spirit who gives true knowledge (epignosin) and wisdom (sophia, Col. 1:9). Fruitbearing and knowledge are indeed pleasant to God (Col. 1:10). But all of this is accomplished in Christ. He is the pre­ eminent one; He is the head of whatever heavenly hierarchies exist. The fullness (pleroma) of God himself has been evidenced only in one place—IN CHRIST (Col. 1:19, 2:9). God has a secret, a rich and glorious secret, a hopeful open secret and it is CHRIST IN YOU (Col. 1:27). There is a treasure-house of God stocked with wisdom and knowledge, and the key to it is CHRIST (Col. 2:3). Religious ritual is, at best, the shadow (skia) of God’s truth. Jesus Christ is the substance (soma—body) of it (Col. 2: 16). The word from beyond is for the good and salvation of mankind. It is for man’s transformation into the image (eikon) of what God, the creator, has desired. This new image removes all traces of so-called created differences—as we say today those of race, creed and national origin (Col. 3: 11). The fullness, the wisdom, the knowledge, the image of God and the new creation He desires are found simply and finally in one place. “Christ is all, Christ is in all” (Col. 3: 11 TEV). In this epistle there are no two ways, or multiple ways, in which man knows of God or is known of Him. There is only the one way of Christ.

The Colossian heresy was adding requirements to the essential message of Christ only and Christ alone, and Christian history has been replete with repetitions of the Colossian story. Mistaken notions of repentance leading to an elaborate system of penance is Colossce redividus; so are ornamental eschatological systems which require strict adherence to gain acceptance in certain churchly circles; so are intellectual qualifications of the Christian affirmation that God is in Christ which qualify and negate the simplicity of the gospel. All of these and dozens of others are progeny of the Colossian heretics.

The philosophy of man spoken of in Colossians 2:8 is not nearly so analogous to a college course in history of thought as it is to the esoteric predictions and strained hermeneutics of Garner Ted Armstrong. Paul is not putting down Plato! Only in those rare instances where sophomoric students and/or instructors propose the words of a philosopher as the corner on ultimate truth could the Colossian conditions apply. Contemporary Christianity in reading Colossians should be concerned about mixed motives, the confusion of methods and theology, and the inveterate adding of ecclesiastical requirements. In all subtle embellishments of the gospel and in every restriction on God’s grace there looms the shadow of Colossian heresy. Need­ less to say, both then and now these are preoccupations carried on largely within the walls (intra muras) of the church.

Modern man faced with the garbled expressions of the other world foisted off by modern counterparts to Colossian heretics asks what is meant by the grotesque and fantastic expressions of lordly powers and ruling spirits of the universe. Many modern men in the churches are likewise puzzled as to how best to explain the idea of otherworldly evil to men of this world.

Are there really elemental spirits, supernatural principalities, princes of darkness? Paul may be granting the case hypothetically in order to establish the claim of Christ. One thing is clear, the appearance of supernatural forces of evil or their method of operation is of no significance to Paul when writing to Colossae. What is important is the announcement that all manifestations of evil have been overcome by Christ. It is intriguing to surmise why, in Colossians, Paul does not mention that most prominent and perennial minion of evil-the Devil.

Our current generation is peopled not only by “modern men” but also by very romantic animists who could and have added elaborate systems to gnostic fantasies.[5]See Man, Myth and Magic: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Super­natural, 24 vols. ed. by Richard Cavendish, New York: Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 1970. Poetic language is essential to spiritual truth and necessary for any verbalization of the divine or the demonic. The fallacy of our modern expressions about God and the Devil is in our crass literalism which reduces both to beings easily managed by the power structures of this world.

The overlooked and greatly needed word from Colossians about evil in all of its manifestations is that Christ has overcome it in all of its expressions. Therefore “you are set free from the ruling spirits of the universe. Why, then, do you live as though you belonged to this world?” (Col. 2:20 TEV). In this we hear the great contradiction of Christianity.[6]The emphasizing of this contradiction, that Christ has overcome evil yet evil exists, is one of the major themes of the late Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Once again, Colossians must drive Christendom to the affirmation of radical freedom (Col. 2:20-21) in order that Christians may freely live the new life hidden in God and revealed in Christ (Col. 3: 1-4). And in the actual living of this life there is the awareness that one has also died and is dying with reference to sin (Col. 3:5-10). The New Testament is not greatly concerned with how the evil which affects the cosmos is embodied. Elemental spirits of the universe may be personified in one age and abstracted as personality flaws in another. They may be construed as the malicious evil in political and social structures or feared as the power of the covens of black witches. Paul is certain of one thing. God has overcome evil in Jesus Christ and the ultimate revelation of this victory is always an immanent possibility (Col. 3:3). This sweeping affirmation drives one on to the deepest and most insistent theological questions of Colossians, and indeed of the Christian faith. Who is Jesus Christ, and what did he do?



Colossians fully acknowledges there are two simultaneous worlds, the visible and the invisible. There is, however, only one clear communique from the invisible world to the visible one, and that is Jesus Christ. The stage is set for the expression of one of Christianity’s great descriptions of her Lord. In Colossians all stops are out on the majestic hymn of praise sung to Him “who is the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9). It is probable that Col. 1:15-20 bodies elements of one of the earliest hymns of Christianity.[7]Cf. Eduard Lohse, Hermeneia: Colossians and Philemon. trans. by Wil­liam R. Poehlmann and Robert J. Karris (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), pp. 41-61. If so, the repetition of the old is woven in a new way to meet the challenge at Colossae. In the christological materials of Colossae there is no ambiguity concerning the question who is Jesus Christ.

He is the visible image (eikon) of the invisible God (Col.) 1:15). In that shattering affirmation lies the solemn, lonely and exclusive claim that God has broken into the visible world in one individual in a way in which He has not done so before or since. It is nothing short of miraculous that a former Jewish rabbi could write so confining a sentence. It has been the legitimate scandal of Christianity to confess this claim and the illegitimate scandal of Christendom to deny it.

Are there indeed other creatures beyond what men can see? If so, Jesus is preeminent (prototokas) above and before them, for he was the instrument by which all things were made, and the adhesive point in which creation finds its identity. His priority is not just temporal; it is also one of quality. His prominent and preeminent place is freely recognized in the church and is vindicated before all the world by His resurrection from the dead. God’s fullness is in Him because it was through Him that God chose to bring creation back to God Himself (Col. 1:15-20).

God’s work in Christ was cosmic work. It was a work that involved the “blood of the cross” as the fulcrum with which God sprang the universe back into joint—all things visible and invisible (Col. 1:20). Cosmic and personal alienation and jarring disjointedness have, through this one death, become reconciliation and the healthy holding together of a growing body (with all ligaments and joints properly in place (Col. 1:21-22, 2:19). The fullness of what God intended in circumcision namely the cleansing of man, has been accomplished by the circumcision of Christ. And the circumcision of Christ consisted of the stripping and casting off of all the evil powers of the universe which had clung as impure foreskin to the person of Christ himself. Circumcision, the first excision demanded by evil, is completed by the eradication (exaleiphas) of the just and legal claims God gave in the law. The first requirement of the law and the fulfillment of its highest demands are accomplished in one and the same act, the crucifixion. And to be universal about it, all powers foreign to God and hostile ‘to man are stripped away (apekdusamenos) in that same act. The key to God is Christ (Col. 2:3), and the theme of God’s Christ is victory. He overcame all things hostile to creation, put them to public shame, and led them in a triumphal procession analogous to those of conquering generals in the ancient world (Col. 2:15).

The two preceding paragraphs rephrase the person and work of Christ in Colossians. Sober consequences and pressing questions arise. How does man truly know what the invisible world is like and what is the intention of the ultimate God concerning him? By the embodiment of one man, Jesus of Nazareth, the key to God and the open secret of God. What has this one man, who also embodied the fullness of God, done to reveal God? Principally, He has died on a cross. Why did God choose only one and why this one? Why do you ask? Is there the supposition that you could have chosen better; is there the subconscious desire that you might have been the chosen, or is there the ultimate arrogance that would deny the right of God to choose at all? There is mystery in the Christian faith. The mystery is an open one to those who, by the power of God, acknowledge it. It is Jesus Christ, chosen of God, reconciler of the world.

What does it mean that he fully embodied God? It means that in this incarnate one there is the definitive clue as to who God is and what He does for man. What does it mean that all things are reconciled to God by His son, including the powers of evil? (Col. 1:20-21). It means that the ultimate outcome of the struggle of good and evil is decided and in one place (the cross) recognized for all of its virulence, and in one place (resurrection) evidenced that God has won. Does the reconciliation of creation man that the “powers” have no power over creation now? No! Does the reconciliation mean that the powers too will be redeemed? No. For evil to be reconciled does not necessarily mean its conversion, nor its annihilation; it more likely means its neutralization. Is there any pragmatic, visible evidence that God has spoken definitively to men in Christ and has decisively defeated evil with good and overcome life with death? Yes, it is the one body of Christ.



The very existence of the Colossian congregation and its problems made possible the epistle to the Colossians. It was also the very existence of the Colossian congregation which proved the argument of the Epistle. The argument, in its leanest and unadorned form goes like this. One man (Epaphras) heard from another (Paul) that one man (Jesus Christ) is the definitive key to God. This one man (Epaphras) shared that message, and other men (at Colossae) were captivated with it. However, the simplicity of that affirmation was radically challenged by others (the Colossian heretics) who asserted that other mysteries must be given by supernatural agents and that man must struggle to overcome demonic forces. The first proclaimer (Paul) refortified the original affirmation that the One (Jesus Christ) is indeed God’s sole key and His glorious mystery. Christ’s death has overcome all powers, and in His death have all men died. Through His death all men may live, and those men who know this are the Colossian Christians (the body of Christ) who should not be confused by suggestions that other affirmations are essential. The evidence of this divine mystery was first embodied in Christ, and it is now evidenced by the Colossian congregation, which is a part of the one body of Christ. The congregation must, indeed, suffer the struggle with sin in a way similar to, but not comparable with, the struggle of Christ with sin (Col. 3:5-11). Paul himself has so struggled and suffered (Col. 1:24-25). Christ has died and risen in this world; so must Christians (Col. 3:1-11). “Christ does for us what we could not do for ourselves; but we must do, for our part, what He will not do for us.”[8]Moule, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary, p. 73. What is the difference between the Colossian Christians’ struggle and the struggle of all other men to be at peace with God? Namely this, the Colossian Christian knows that God wants peace and has made peace (eirenopoisas, Col. 1:20) in the definitive acts of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Colossian Christian knows the powers of evil have been circumcised by the death of Christ, which was his ultimate baptism. The Colossian Christian has been baptized as a solemn sign that he has identified with Christ. He has risen from the waters of baptism as Christ rose from the grave to live a life of radical freedom by the power of God (Col. 2: 11-15). Such freedom suffers no restrictive, picayune rules which are designed to gain the acceptance of God (Col. 2: 16-19). Rather, it welcomes all appropriate suggestions as to how the new life may best evidence its unity with God in Christ (Col. 3-4). The life of the body of Christ, the church, is the primary pragmatic proof which this visible world has of God’s invisible world.

In brief, that is the story of the Colossian church—of the Christian church. But the story is not without problems. Does the church, the body of Christ, suffer on behalf of men? Is the contemporary Community of faith aware that it is the “primary pragmatic proof” as to what God desires for all creation secured by the sufferings of Jesus Christ?

Is the solemn significance of baptism adequately explained to those who assert their corporativeness with Christ? Above all, is the ethical life of the modern church any kind of new life which is more plausible than the lives of those who fight the “elemental powers” of the universe alone?

There are weighty theological problems in Colossians. They arise from the basic affirmations of that book. They become real in the church’s temptation to complicate the stern simplicity of the message of Colossians. They are soluble only by the radical reaffirmation and consequent implementation of the theme -“Christ is all, Christ is in all” (Col. 3: 11).


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