Has the Gospel Been Preached to the Whole Creation Already?
From Rob Bell to Peter O’Brien, Colossians 1:23 proves a challenge. Paul refers to the gospel of his day as “the gospel . . . which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven” (ESV). Commentators multiply explanations of how the gospel could have already been proclaimed “in all creation” in the first century. The context:
You he has now reconciled . . . if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed (Greek tou kēruchthentos) in all creation under heaven.” (Colossians 1:21–23, emphasis added)
Here is my simple solution, though you have to know Greek to see it. The Greek for the phrase “which has been proclaimed” is tou kēruchthentos). This is a substantival participle which we could render “the proclaimed one” in English. It is in apposition with “the gospel” (tou euangeliou . . . tou kēruchthentos)—“the gospel . . . the proclaimed one.” The fact that the participle “proclaimed” is aorist tense does not mean the proclamation has already happened in the past. That is not the way aorists in substantival participles work, as Daniel Wallace makes clear in Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (note 8, 615).
The aorist tense in such uses denotes no specific time. You can see how flexible the aorist is by the use of the aorist passive in Colossians 3:4: “When Christ who is your life appears (phanerothē), then you also will appear with him in glory.” The word for “appears” is aorist passive, but refers to an indefinite future time.
So the simplest reading of Colossians 1:23 is that Paul is defining the gospel as the kind of gospel that is unbounded and global in scope, and therefore is preached, by definition, in all the creation. There is no statement here that it has already happened. So I would translate it:
You he has now reconciled . . . if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard—the gospel which is proclaimed in all creation under heaven.
I happily note that N.T. Wright suggests the same interpretation. He writes that the usual English past-time translation, “‘which has been proclaimed,’ might seem to stand in the way of this view. But there is some question whether the aorist participle here (kēruchthentos) has this kind of time significance. Aorist adjectival participles can sometimes be simply ‘definitional’; i.e., here, ‘the proclaimed-in-creation gospel.’” (The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon, Tyndale New Testament Commentary, 84–85).
So the implication for us is: Don’t think the global mission of preaching is complete. It isn’t. There is a great work to be done precisely because the gospel we love and preach is unbounded in its personal, cultural, and eternal relevance for every people on the planet.
Let’s work while it is day. Our personal night is coming when we will work no more.