October 1995 - 15:79-80
Did not Paul make a factual blunder when he said the Gospel had been preached to “every creature under heaven” (Colossians 1:23)? After all, mission efforts could not have reached the peoples of China and South America by the time Paul wrote to the Colossians.
Taking Paul’s words in a rigidly literal sense, it seems he is making an impossible claim. Conservative scholars date the writing of the book of Colossians to coincide with Paul’s Roman imprisonment recorded in Acts 28:30 (c. A.D. 60-62). Hence, Paul seems to be saying that the Gospel circled the globe in about 30 years. The problem is, a person living in first-century Palestine could have comprehended neither the vastness of planet Earth, nor the extent to which humans had gone to inhabit it after dispersing from the Tower of Babel. There is no evidence that Paul or his fellow Christians knew anything about the ancient inhabitants of China or the Americas. Not only would their ignorance of these places hinder them from making the journey, but it is questionable whether any first-century Christian could have journeyed to the New World. While we might be inclined to answer the difficulty by saying, “with God all things are possible,” it is not necessary to invoke a miracle to understand this verse. Three observations may be helpful in clearing away the confusion that sometimes surrounds Paul’s comment.
“I CALL IT AS I SEE IT”
First, human communication is full of phenomenal language (that is, language that discusses things as they seem). So, even though we “enlightened” moderns know that the Sun doesn’t really rise and set (instead, the Earth turns toward and away from the Sun), we still talk about sunrise and sunset. This kind of language also occurs in the Bible (e.g., Ecclesiastes 1:5; Matthew 5:45). In 1 Corinthians 15:36, Paul said that unless a seed dies it will not produce a plant. Yet, we know that in the strict sense, if a seed truly is dead, it cannot produce a plant. The fact is, Paul was speaking in figurative (phenomenal) terms to illustrate his argument. So, while the seed that we bury certainly looks dead, in time it sprouts and produces a plant. This is a splendid picture of the death, burial, and resurrection of the human body. The corruptible, fleshly body is buried in death, but a new, glorious body is raised to life.
“HERE, BUT NOT EVERYWHERE”
Second, biblical writers sometimes used phenomenal language in restricted contexts. In other words, a statement may describe something as it appears in a particular location, though not everywhere. Consider Matthew 13:32, where Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed. He said the mustard seed was “the least of all seeds.” Yet, we know that it is not really the smallest of all seeds (orchid seeds are the smallest). No doubt Jesus knew that, too. It was the smallest seed one would plant in a Palestinian garden. Jesus was not concerned about the size of the seed in an absolute sense; He was making a common comparison from a specific context to illustrate the growth potential of the Kingdom.
“A SHOT HEARD AROUND THE WORLD”
Third, hyperbole (exaggeration) is a common figure of speech that does not imply dishonesty or error when intentionally employed to make a point. For example, Matthew 3:5 records that “Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan” were baptized by John. A strictly literal reading of this verse would lead one to conclude that every man, woman, and child had been baptized by John. But, since Luke 20:5 implies that some of the Jewish leaders had rejected John’s baptism, obviously not everyone in Judea had been baptized. The apparent conflict dissolves if we allow the possibility that Matthew was using hyperbole in his description of the far-reaching effects of John’s ministry.
TYING IT ALL TOGETHER
These three observations should help dispel the confusion over Paul’s statement in Colossians 1:23. When he said the Gospel had been preached to “every creature under heaven,” he was using phenomenal language to make a hyperbolic (exaggerated) claim within a specific context—namely, that the then-known world (what “appeared” to be the whole world) had heard the Gospel.
A few years earlier when Paul wrote to the Romans, he was aware that the Gospel had not yet gone to Spain (Romans 15:20-24). We have no record that he or anyone else had gone there before he wrote to the Colossians. So it seems that Paul was under no illusion regarding the extent to which the Gospel had gone. His emphasis appears to be on the great strides that had been made in such a short time (due to the faithful effort of Paul and his colleagues) to win the world for Christ.
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