top of page

Colossians 1:11-20

When you are called to be Christ’s apostle to “Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel,”[1] as Paul was called to be, what can you do to fulfill that calling when you are locked away in a Roman prison? Paul’s passion & zeal had driven him all over the known world—planting churches, training leaders, preaching to crowds, surviving stoning, flogging and shipwreck. Now, for over two years, he is a captive of the empire, spending long days in solitude and deep thought.

Though he was confined under Roman house arrest, Paul’s apostleship did not cease. During this period, he was compelled to find new strategies to fulfill his calling. He did this in two profound ways: prayer and letters. The prison letters of Paul (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians & Philemon) are treasures of theological insight, pastoral instruction and historical detail. Not only did they impact the churches among which they were circulated, but they found their way into the New Testament canon, where the Spirit has used them to inspire and guide the church through the centuries.

What’s more, by way of these prison letters, we’re given a window into the holy place of Paul’s communion with God in prayer. Across two millennia, these prayers resonate as effectual intercession for the church today. For those who have discovered the power of scripture-formed prayer, the words of Paul are wonderful gifts for both personal and corporate expression. (See Ephesians 1:17-23; 3:14-21; Philippians 1:9-11; Colossians 1:9-14)

Colossians 1:11-14 is the conclusion of Paul’s prayer for the Colossian believers that began in verse 9. He describes their new life in Christ in the most exalted terms: their strength comes from God’s glorious power, they share in the inheritance of the saints in the light and they have been rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son. Paul knows he’s going to address problems and controversies that threaten the health of the church; but he intentionally begins his letter with thanksgiving and praise, focusing attention on the person and work of Christ. Captivity has served to unleash powerful prayer from the heart of Paul!

Christopher Seitz writes, “Paul is seeing the Colossians and the spread of the gospel through a wider lens than had previously been his instinct, precisely due to his imprisonment and the emergence of a new form of apostolic life, in prayer and letter address, an extension of these vocations against a now wider canvas.” [2]

In verses 15-20, intercession gives way to soaring doxology as Paul celebrates the supremacy of Christ over creation and redemption. These verses are widely regarded as lines from a hymn of praise. Whether Paul himself wrote these lyrics or they were from a worship song in use among Christians at that time, the importance of these verses for the Colossians lies in their theological content. Paul uses this hymn to clarify the exalted and irreplaceable role of the Son both in the origins of the created order and in the grand sweep of salvation history. In verses 15-17, we hear echoes of John 1:1-14 and, from the wisdom tradition, Proverbs 8:22-31. “All things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (16c-17) And, then, following the trajectory described in the Philippians Kenosis Hymn, we read in verses 18-20 that the eternally preexistent second person of the Trinity took on a body of human flesh, was crucified and, through the power of God, became the firstborn from the dead. He who was humbled through suffering and death has now come to have first place in everything and is the head of his body, the Church.

When this letter was read to the believers at Colossae, did the familiar words of the hymn rise up as music in their hearts? Later in this letter, Paul will remind them to “sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God.” (3:16) Is the Apostle here using the power of song to speak to both the heads and the hearts of his audience?

Someone has said, “Some truths we can learn only by singing.” I understand this to mean that there are deep truths that cannot be fully grasped until we allow them to penetrate both our minds and our hearts. The music and poetry of worship help us to invest our whole being in the appreciation of the majesty before us. When describing the supremacy of Christ, Paul wisely chooses a hymn to express what cannot be contained in words. This is more than a theological exercise; this is truth that inspires worship.

The final verse of this section states that “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Whatever was distracting the Colossian Christians—Jewish legalism, gnostic teachings or worship of angels—Paul wants to bring their attention back to the all-sufficient work of God through his Son, Jesus. Though the cosmos was created in and through Christ, “the creation was subjected to futility” (Romans 8:20) and needed a hero to do the work of restoration. This hero, Paul tells us, was none other than the Christ of creation, who took on flesh as Savior and Reconciler. Where there were hostilities and shattered relationships, he has made peace.

This work of reconciliation is cosmic in scope. As Douglas Moo writes:

That fallen human beings are the prime objects of this reconciliation is clear from the New Testament generally and from the sequel to this text (vv. 21-23). But it would be a serious mistake (not always avoided) to limit this “reconciling” work to human beings. The “peace” that God seeks is a peace that not only applies to humans in their relationship to God, but also to humans in their relationship with one another (hence the mandate for social justice) and to humans in their relationship with the natural world (hence the mandate for a biblically oriented environmentalism). [3]

We have been made ministers of this reconciliation—called to announce the good news that God is for us in Jesus Christ. As agents of the Great Reconciler, we advocate for peace between estranged individuals, races & nations and for healing of the wounded planet on which we depend for survival. In such advocacy, our lives foreshadow the day when all things will be made new. To paraphrase only slightly, “In him, all things in heaven and on earth were created, and through him, all things in heaven and on earth are reconciled to God.”

To him be praise, honor and glory, forever and ever. [1] Acts 8:15 [2] Christopher R. Seitz, Colossians, Brazos Press, 2014, p. 83. [3] Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, Eerdmans Press, 2008, p. 137.