What does it mean that "Christ is all and in all"?
In Colossians 3:11 (NASB), Paul declares that "Christ is all and in all." The immediate context relates to the "new self" -- who we are in Christ, no matter our ethnicity or socio-economic standing. However, the larger context is the whole letter of Colossians (with parallels in Ephesians) where we find at least six ways in which Christ truly is all and in all.
|Mosaic of Christ Jesus (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)|
1) CHRIST IS THE IMAGE OF THE INVISIBLE GOD, THE FULLNESS OF DEITY IN BODILY FORM
In Colossians 1:15 (NASB) Paul tells us that God's Son (Christ) "is the image of the invisible God." He goes on to say in Col. 1:19 (NASB) that “it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in [Christ, God's Son].” He then adds this in Col. 2:9 (NASB): “For in [Christ] all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form.” Our only way of knowing God, who “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:16, NASB) is to know Him in and through Jesus (God incarnate). As Jesus told his disciple Philip, "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9, NASB).
2) CHRIST CREATED ALL THAT EXISTS
In Colossians 1:15-16 (NASB), Paul states that Christ is "the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through him and for him." John 1:3 (NASB) makes essentially the same point: "All things came into being through him, and apart from him nothing came into being that has come into being." As Creator of the cosmos, Christ is sovereign over all. "Firstborn" here refers not to first in birth order (the Son of God, with the Father and the Spirit, is eternal God), but first in importance (primacy). Christ as creator of all is supreme over all.
3) CHRIST IS ETERNAL AND IN HIM ALL THINGS HOLD TOGETHER
Note Colossians 1:17 (NASB): "[Christ] is before all things, and in him all things hold together." Before here refers to primacy, but also to priority in time. As Jesus told the Jews who were attacking him (John 8:58, NASB), "Before Abraham was born, I am." He was referencing Exodus 3:14, where God tells Moses, “I am who I am.” The Jews understood what Jesus meant and picked up stones to stone him. "In him all things hold together" means that Christ is the power that upholds (sustains) the universe. We are thus totally dependent on him both for our existence and our every need.
4) CHRIST IS THE BEGINNING, THE FIRSTBORN FROM AMONG THE DEAD
Colossians 1:18 (NASB) tells us that Christ "is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead..." Here Paul apparently is referencing Jesus’ bodily resurrection, which was the first of its kind. Although there are other resurrections in the Bible that precede Jesus’ resurrection, the others were temporary -- those people died a second time and now await the final resurrection. Jesus alone has been raised with an indestructible (glorified) resurrection body of the sort we will receive in the resurrection of the dead at our Lord's return (parousia or advent) at the end of the age. Thus Paul is telling us that Jesus himself is our hope -- hope of an indestructible life in an immortal body in the age to come.
5) CHRIST HAS FIRST PLACE IN EVERYTHING
In Colossians 1:18 (NIV), Paul says God raised Jesus from the dead first so that in everything he might have the supremacy." In Eph. 1:10 (NET) Paul says God is working "to head up all things in Christ -- the things in heaven and the things on earth." Because Jesus was willing to humble himself and go to the cross, Paul says in Phil. 2:9-11(NASB) that "God highly exalted him, and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Christ already has "first place" -- the place (position) of supremacy over all. He is Lord of all, and the revelation of that reality is progressively unfolding in the world through the church, empowered and directed by the Holy Spirit.
6) THROUGH CHRIST, GOD RECONCILED THE ENTIRE CREATION TO HIMSELF
Paul tells us in Colossians 1:20 that God worked "through [Christ] to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through [Christ's] blood, shed on the cross." By all things (ta panta in Greek), Paul is referring to the entire creation (as in Romans 8:18-23). Christ is all in God’s eternal purpose for all creation, and that includes all humanity.
As Paul indicates in Eph. 1:3-4 (NASB), God has blessed all humanity with every spiritual blessing in Christ. He has done so by choosing humanity, in Christ, “before the foundation of the world.” In Col. 1:14 (NASB) we are told that in Christ, we have "redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” In Col. 2:13 (NASB) we are told that though we all were "dead" in "transgressions and the uncircumcision" of our "flesh," Christ made us "alive together with him, having forgiven us all our transgressions.”
Christ is thus the definitive answer to the human predicament -- the answer to all sin and the guilt that goes with it -- both now and in the life to come. In short, Christ is "all-sufficient" as it pertains to salvation (with all the word "salvation" connotes). However, the Jews who opposed Jesus (and also Paul) didn't see it that way. They saw themselves as superior to the Gentiles in spiritual matters. But Paul sets the record straight, declaring that Christ is "all, and in all.” The Jews also thought that they could be right with God by keeping the law, especially the ritual of circumcision. But Paul says that in Christ there is “no circumcised and uncircumcised...but Christ is all, and in all.” The Greeks thought that they were a superior race over the barbarians and Scythians, and the Jews thought that they were superior over the Gentiles. But Paul says that in Christ there is “no barbarian or Scythian...but Christ is all, and in all.” Those who were born free in the Roman world thought they were superior to slaves, who were viewed as property, not as humans. But Paul says that in Christ there is “no slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.”
In the person of the incarnate Son of God (the God-man Jesus Christ), God has reconciled all to himself. All are included -- there are no exceptions. Note Eugene Peterson's paraphrase of Col. 3:9-11 in The Message (emphasis added):
Don’t lie to one another. You’re done with that old life. It’s like a filthy set of ill-fitting clothes you’ve stripped off and put in the fire. Now you’re dressed in a new wardrobe. Every item of your new way of life is custom-made by the Creator, with his label on it. All the old fashions are now obsolete. Words like Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and irreligious, insider and outsider, uncivilized and uncouth, slave and free, mean nothing. From now on everyone is defined by Christ, everyone is included in Christ.
HOW THEN SHALL WE LIVE?
The mind-blowing truth that Christ is all, and in all, not only has profound cosmic implications -- it is of great consequence as it pertains to the life we now live as believers (followers of Jesus). In Col. 2:10 (NASB) Paul declares that “In [Jesus Christ] we "have been made complete” (the NIV says "brought to fulness" -- the Greek here means to be made complete or to be filled up). This completion/filling is, as we say, a done deal. In this accomplished reality we find peace -- we rest in the truth of who Christ is and who we are in him. However, our "resting" in Christ, and in who we are in him, is not passive. As Paul notes in Col. 1:28, his goal as an apostle is to “present everyone fully mature in Christ.” Here we see the tension that Paul often presents between what God, in Christ, has made us objectively (an accomplished reality) and what we, by the Spirit, experience subjectively -- an unfolding experience as we walk with Christ. Objectively, all spiritual blessings are ours already in Christ (Eph. 1:3), but it is through a life of walking with Christ that we (subjectively) come to understand and thus personally experience these blessings. In that regard, note that Paul exhorts believers to "continue in your faith, established and firm and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel" (Col. 1:23, NIV).
In Simul Sanctification (p. 113), Jeff McSwain summarizes Karl Barth's understanding of this objective-subjective aspect of Paul's thought in Colossians 3:
Christians in the community of faith believe and embody the truth of their "new" life in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit. At the same time, they recognized and define their limited and localized experience of reality as it exists within reality's larger scope. The "us-them" paradigm fades away as Christians perceive their own re-creation and renewal in inner connection to the breadth of creation, the image, and Christ. On Barth's view, between believers and unbelievers there is no ontological distinction at any level -- anthropologically, epistemologically, pneumatologically, etc. Yet Christians live grateful and worshipful lives in the Spirit; missionally they are given to perceive the Body of Christ as "a provisional representation of the sanctification of all humanity and human life as it has taken place in Him" (Church Dogmatics IV/2, 620).
In Colossians 2:3, Paul tell us that in Christ is "hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." Hidden implies that as believers, in our subjective experience by the Spirit, we do not yet see and so do not yet fully experience all these riches -- we live in the "time between the time" -- the "already-but-not yet" of the kingdom of God. The knowledge to which Paul is referring is the knowledge of God and of ourselves. The wisdom to which he refers is the skill of applying this knowledge in our daily lives (living into the knowledge, which is the truth of our being in Christ). Christ is all this for us, and by walking with him -- sharing his life and love through the Spirit -- more and more of his own knowledge and wisdom becomes ours subjectively-personally (i.e. experientially).
For a believer, the life of walking with Christ involves "seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God" (Col. 3:1, NASB). This seeking is an ongoing spiritual discipline of setting “your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2, NASB). It involves “taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5, NASB). It means daily casting off the dirty clothes of the old self and putting on the new, clean clothes of the life that is ours in Christ (Col. 3:9-10, NASB). This is a lifelong journey -- a process that happens as we rest in Jesus, relying upon him in faith, looking daily to the One who, by the Spirit, lives within us. As Paul states (2 Cor. 3:18, NASB): "But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit."
This Advent and Christmas season may we "make room" for Christ to be for us, in our daily living and loving, the One who truly is all and in all.
References for further study on Colossians 3:11: