Has the Gospel Already Reached the Entire World?
Welcome back to the podcast. I hope you had an edifying weekend. We start the week with a missions question, and it’s this: Did the apostle Paul say the gospel had already reached the ends of the world in his own lifetime? It appears he did, and that raises implications about the urgency of the Great Commission today.
Here’s the question. “Pastor John, hello! My name is Kevin, and I live in Chicago. My question has to do with Paul’s words in Colossians 1:6, where he speaks of the gospel that has ‘come to you, as indeed in the whole world.’ He maybe suggested that the gospel had already reached the whole world in his lifetime. It seems clearer in Colossians 1:23. There Paul speaks of the hope ‘of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven.’ Wow. So what does Paul mean when he says that the hope of the gospel has already been proclaimed in all creation? I feel an urgency to unreached nations. But these texts have dampened that urgency in me some. Can you explain what Paul means here? Thank you!”
Well, bless you, Kevin, for the sense of urgency that you feel. And yes, I think I can explain it, and I hope I can not only explain it, but explain it in a way that intensifies your commitment to reach the nations rather than dampening that commitment. So, let’s take these two passages one at a time.
Gospel on the Move
Colossians 1:5–6 says, referring to “the hope laid up for you in heaven,” “Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it 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.”
Now, notice what that text does not say. It does not say that the gospel has already been preached in the whole world. It does not say that the gospel has reached to the ends of the world. It simply says that the gospel, which has come to you Colossians, is the very gospel that is bearing fruit and increasing everywhere it goes in the whole world. The point is not that he has finished going through the whole world. The point is that it’s the kind of gospel that goes through the whole world, and wherever it goes, it bears fruit and increases.
Now, to underline that we’re on the right track in saying that, we just need to remember that Paul himself said later in Romans 15:20–24,
And thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else's foundation. . . . This is the reason why I have so often been hindered from coming to you. But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, and since I have longed for many years to come to you, I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a while.
“Paul had no notion that the gospel had already been preached throughout the whole world.”
In other words, Paul knew very well that the gospel had not reached Spain, at least to any significant degree, because he wants to preach the gospel where the gospel has not been preached. That’s why he’s going to Spain. Paul had no notion that the gospel had already been preached throughout the whole world. So, the really crucial question in Colossians 1:6 is why Paul went out of his way to say that that very gospel, which had come to Colossae, was also making its way fruitfully through the whole world. Why did he say that?
Good News for All Peoples
I think there are three reasons. Number one, the gospel is not merely local, not merely tribal, not parochial, not limited to any one tribe or class or ethnicity or language or culture or city like Colossae. The point is that this gospel that you have believed, you Colossians, in your little out-of-the-way town of Colossae, is a triumphant, global gospel laying claim on every single person and people group in the whole world, wherever it goes. Don’t think you’ve embraced a little thing — that’s number one.
Number two, Paul said this — namely, that it’s spreading throughout the whole world and increasing — to underline the fact that there is a great, glorious Creator God behind the gospel who is laying claim on the entire creation. He’s not a tribal deity. When you believe the gospel, you believe in the God of the universe who has no serious rivals. Wherever you go, you won’t ever run into another religion, anywhere in the world, that can nullify the gospel, compromise the gospel.
“When you believe the gospel, you believe in the God of the universe who has no serious rivals.”
And the third reason, I think, he talks this way and stresses the global dimension of the gospel for the Colossians is to show that it is the power — this gospel has power — to change people of every kind, all kinds of people. It’s not just effective among one kind of humanity but will bear fruit among every single kind of humanity that it runs into — all the unimaginable differences in the world that there are today and that there were then. Therefore, it is a great gospel. That, I think, is the point of Colossians 1:6, when he says, “. . . as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing.”
More Places to Reach
Now let’s look at Colossians 1:23. I’m going to read the ESV. I think this is a bigger problem for most people than verse six, but it has a very simple solution if we could just get everybody to translate it the same way. Here’s verse 23: you have been reconciled to God “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 in all creation under heaven” — yikes — ”and of which I, Paul, became a minister.”
Now, that’s a real stumbling block for lots of people to read in their translation in verse 23, that the gospel in the first century, halfway through the first century, “has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven.” And it’s amazing to me how many commentators try to squeeze that stunning statement into the first century and say something like, “Well, really the gospel had reached to what the first-century people assumed was all creation under heaven.” To which I delicately say, “Baloney.”
I say that not only because they weren’t that ignorant — they really weren’t that ignorant of the rest of the world — but I say it mainly because Paul himself (we already saw this) said in Romans 15 that he was intending to proclaim the gospel in a vast region of Gaul, called Spain, where there hadn’t been yet the preaching of the gospel. So, he didn’t believe that the gospel had been preached in all creation under heaven.
‘Has Been Proclaimed’?
So what’s the solution? The solution is that the translation “which has been proclaimed,” is not at all the most natural translation. It baffles me why translations give it that meaning, a temporal meaning, “which has been proclaimed.” That’s translating two Greek words, “the proclaimed” — tou kērychthentos. That’s all it’s translating: “the proclaimed.”
It is a straightforward aorist passive participle in agreement with the word gospel. Both of them are genitive singular, and thus clarifying. It clarifies and defines the kind of gospel we’re talking about. With the article the in front of the participle, it is not an adverbial participle telling when. There’s nothing temporal about it. It doesn’t say “has been proclaimed.” That’s not in the word at all. Very literally it would read like this: “. . . the gospel that you heard, the proclaimed one in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.”
So the solution is that Paul is not saying anything about when the gospel is proclaimed in all creation. Rather, he’s saying, “That’s the kind of gospel it is — that’s what’s happening. It is the kind of gospel that is proclaimed under all creation under heaven.” In other words, the meaning is virtually the same as chapter 1:6: “. . . as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing.”
Paul is emphasizing the fact that the gospel embraced by this little group of people in this little town of Colossae is the very gospel that is proclaimed in all creation under heaven. God is laying claim on the entire creation, and you are being swept up into that glorious plan. It does not say, “has been proclaimed” — it “is proclaimed in all creation.” Everywhere it goes, it is being proclaimed, and it is bearing fruit.
Don’t Forsake Your Urgency
So, Kevin in Chicago, don’t lose your sense of urgency or your sense of confidence that the gospel you believe can be taken — should be taken, must be taken — to every people group on the planet.
It will be as relevant there as it is in your own heart, with tremendous power. It is a gospel bearing fruit in the whole world. It is a gospel proclaimed in all creation under heaven. And when that’s finished, Jesus says, “The end will come” (Matthew 24:14).