Christ, Our Hope
What is the hope of the gospel according to Colossians? In a word, it is Christ. Paul tells the Colossians that “the hope of glory” is “Christ in you” (Col. 1:27). Those who have Christ dwelling in them (by his Spirit) have the hope that they will one day share in the glory of his resurrection (cf. Rom. 5–8). Hope is by definition oriented toward this unseen future reality, “for who hopes for what he sees?” (Rom. 8:24). But the hope of the resurrection is also rooted in the past reality of the cross of Christ through which the Father has accomplished our redemption and reconciliation.
Redemption in Christ
In his opening prayer, Paul reminds the Colossians that the Father has accomplished redemption in his beloved Son (Col. 1:14). While redemption can be used to describe salvation generally, here it specifically refers to a payment for our release from captivity.1Paul’s reasoning is fleshed out in Ephesians, a letter probably written at the same time, in which he says that this payment is the cross: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:7).
What was the captivity from which Christ’s blood redeemed us? Paul defines this redemption as “the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:14). So the cross has redeemed us from the captivity of the debt of our sins against God. And as a result we are also freed from captivity to “the domain of darkness” (Col. 1:13) or the evil kingdom of Satan. Satan has authority over fallen humanity because of his role in our sins: he tempts us to sin as he did with Eve (Gen. 3:1–5), and he accuses us of sin as he did with Job (Job 1:6–12). People today tend to reject or forget about Satan and demonic powers, but the Colossians were acutely aware of the presence of angels and demons. Perhaps the philosophy promised them deliverance from the threat of demonic powers. But Paul reminds them that the Father had already delivered them “from the domain of darkness” (Col. 1:13), because he had forgiven their sins in Christ (Col. 1:14).
He has also “transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col. 1:13). In Christ, believers are bona fide citizens and heirs of the kingdom of God, for the Father has qualified us “to share in the inheritance of the saints in light” (Col. 1:12).2 The redeemed, then, are rightly called “saints” or God’s “holy people” now, in the present (Col. 1:2, 4, 12, 26). And we also have hope for the future that at the final judgment he will “present [us] holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (Col. 1:22), provided of course that we continue in the faith (Col. 1:23).3
Reconciliation through Christ
In the famous poem about Christ in Colossians 1:15–20, Paul teaches that the Father has also accomplished reconciliation through the cross of Christ. The word “reconcile” implies the problem of rebellion. Although God created all things through and for his Son (Col. 1:16), these things are now at war with him. Yet through the incarnate Son he has reconciled “all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20).
Interpreters and theologians struggle to explain Colossians 1:20. Does this verse teach universal salvation for all people on earth and angels in heaven? This view seems unlikely when one considers what Paul says in the next paragraph about the need for people to continue in the faith to stand blameless before God (Col. 1:21–23) and what he says later in the letter about God’s coming wrath against disobedient people (Col. 3:5) and Christ’s triumph over evil angels (Col.2:15). Arnold observes that the language Paul uses in Colossians 2:15 “leaves no room for a reconciliation as friends.”4Instead, we must see that reconciliation in Colossians 1:20 is a category broader than salvation. It refers to the universal peace God has brought about through the cross. The war has ended! Some enemies have been “disarmed” and brought into submission (Col.2:15). Other enemies have been turned into friends.
Paul goes on to say the Colossians are in the latter category: “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (Col.1:21–22). The Father is indeed our source of peace (Col.1:2). And his work of reconciliation through the death of his Son is the foundation of our future and final hope.
Our Hidden Hope
Thus the hope of the gospel is Christ. The Father has accomplished our redemption and reconciliation through his Son in order to present us blameless at the final judgment. When he appears, we will appear with him in the glory of his resurrection (Col. 3:4). But until that day he remains hidden in heaven at the right hand of God (Col. 3:1), and our lives are hidden with him as well (Col. 3:3). The Christological content of the gospel, then, is rightly described as “the hope laid up for you in heaven” (Col. 1:5). Further, this description introduces us to the “heavenly eschatology” that characterizes Colossians, for it contains both eschatological (“the hope”) and heavenly (“in heaven”) categories.
The hope of the resurrection is also rooted in the past reality of the cross of Christ through which the Father has accomplished our redemption and reconciliation.
The gospel of Christ is eschatological in that it is a message about the eschaton, the end of time when God will establish his kingdom, judge his enemies, and redeem his people through the Messiah. On the one hand, Paul teaches that this kingdom has come already with Christ (Col. 1:12–14; cf. Col. 4:11). The Father has defeated his enemies and redeemed his people through the cross of Christ. This inaugurated aspect of eschatology is emphasized in Colossians. On the other hand, Paul teaches in Colossians that Christ has not yet appeared (Col. 3:4). We look forward in hope to share in the glory of his resurrection (Col. 3:4) and the inheritance of the saints (Col. 1:12).
This “already but not yet” eschatology overlaps with Paul’s heavenly categories in Colossians. Christ is already reigning at the right hand of God in heaven, but his lordship is not yet openly revealed on the earth (Col. 3:1–4).5
According to Colossians, then, the hope of the gospel is hidden in heaven.
Bearing Fruit and Increasing
The hidden nature of the gospel, however, does not mean that it has nothing to do with the here and now. For Paul tells the Colossians that “in the whole world [the gospel] is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth” (Col. 1:6).6
Internally, the gospel was also bearing the fruit of faith and love among the Colossians. God’s kingdom can seem as small as a mustard seed, especially in a small town like Colossae. But the hidden hope of the gospel was bearing fruit and increasing in them and in the whole world.
Paul’s letter to the Colossians opens with thanksgiving to God the Father for the fruit he had borne in the Colossians: faith in Christ Jesus and love for all the saints. Their faith and love were rooted in the hope of the gospel they had heard from Epaphras: Christ himself! The Father has redeemed and reconciled us through his beloved Son in order to present us as holy before him at the final judgment. Until that day Christ, our hope, remains hidden in heaven above. Yet his gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the world below.
- This conclusion has been influenced by Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965), 16–18.
- Some commentators argue that “saints in light” in Col. 1:12 refers to angels, drawing parallels with Qumran texts that describe angels as God’s “holy ones” (e.g., Lohse, Colossians and Philemon, 36). But in the context of Col. 1:2, 4, and Col. 1:26 it makes more sense to see a consistent reference to God’s holy people.
- Many interpreters detect exodus imagery and typology in Paul’s teaching about redemption in Col. 1:12–14. Just as the Lord delivered Israel from captivity and brought them into their inheritance, so he has now redeemed believers to bring us into our inheritance. See the extensive discussion of Beale in Colossians and Philemon, 72–74.
- Clinton E. Arnold, The Colossian Syncretism: The Interface between Christianity and Folk Belief at Colossae (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), 268.
- Beker helpfully speaks of “the present but hidden lordship of Christ.” J. Christaan Beker, Paul the Apostle: The Triumph of God in Life and Thought(Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), 19.
- Many commentators suggest that Paul’s language about “bearing fruit and increasing” (Col. 1:6, 10) alludes to the command to “be fruitful and multiply” in Gen. 1:28 (see especially Beale, Colossians and Philemon, 42, 48–50, 59). But this allusion is not clear to me because of the difference in wording and meaning of the two contexts.
Kevin W. McFadden is the author of Hidden with Christ in God: A Theology of Colossians and Philemon.
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