Fullness, Christ, and Christians in Colossians and Ephesians

Twice in his epistle to the Colossians, Paul uses the term “fullness” in reference to the deity of Christ: 

  • “For in him all the fullness [πλήρωμα] was pleased to dwell [κατοικῆσαι]” (Col. 1:19).1
  • “For in him dwells [κατοικεῖ] all the fullness [πλήρωμα] of the deity bodily” (Col. 2:9). 

Those who deny the deity of Christ commonly raise a specific objection to the use of these texts in support of the doctrine. They point out that immediately after Colossians 2:9, Paul says, “and you have been filled [πεπληρωμένοι] with him, who is the head of all rule and authority” (Col. 2:10). A careful consideration of this objection will help us better understand Paul’s meaning in these texts.

The two statements quoted above are the only occurrences of the word “fullness” (πλήρωμα) in Colossians. However, the word also appears four times in Ephesians:

  • Paul refers to God’s plan in Christ “for the fullness [πλήρωμα] of the times” (Eph. 1:10).
  • Paul states that God gave Christ “as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness [πλήρωμα] of the one filling [πληρουμένου] all things in all things” (Eph. 1:22b-23). The participle πληρουμένου is a different form of the same verb used in Colossians 2:10, quoted above. The verb is, of course, related to the noun πλήρωμα. We will need to consider how Paul is using these words in context.
  • Paul prays for the Ephesian Christians “that Christ may dwell [κατοικῆσαι] through faith in your hearts …and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled [πληρωθῆτε] with all the fullness [πλήρωμα] of God” (Eph. 3:19). Here again, Paul uses the verb meaning “fill” in connection with the noun meaning “fullness.” Notice that Paul also uses another form of the verb meaning “dwell” (κατοικῆσαι) that he used in Colossians 1:19 and 2:9. We will need to say something about this word as well.
  • After stating that Christ had descended and then “ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill [πληρώσῃ] all things” (Eph. 4:10), Paul says that the church is to be built up until we attain “the measure of the stature of the fullness [πλήρωμα] of Christ…we are to grow in all things into him who is the head, Christ” (Eph. 4:13, 15).

All of the words we are highlighting in these passages—“fullness,” “fill(ing),” and “dwell”—are used by Paul and other NT writers in different contexts and with different meanings. In order to understand these statements, the way the words are used together in their contexts must be given due attention.

In both Colossians and Ephesians, Paul draws a clear distinction between Christ and the church. Christ is “the head,” while the church is his “body” (Eph. 1:22b-23; 4:12, 15-16; Col. 1:18; 2:10; see also Eph. 4:4; 5:23, 29b-30; Col. 1:24; 2:19; 3:15).2 Christ is “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Eph. 1:21). Jesus Christ is the “one Lord” (Eph. 4:5). All things were created in, through, and for the Son, who is before all things and in whom all things hold together (Col. 1:16-17). He is to be preeminent in all things (Col. 1:18b). These things are all true of the Son, Jesus Christ, and not of the church or of any individual Christian.

It is in this context of teaching about Christ as the unique, preeminent Head that Paul states that “all the fullness” dwells in Christ (Col. 1:19; 2:9). By “all the fullness,” Paul explains in Colossians 2:9, he means the fullness “of the deity” (τῆς θεότητος). The word translated “deity” means “the nature or state of being God.”3 This is the strongest word Paul could have used to convey the idea of being God.

Here we may respond to a common objection that pulls from another part of the NT. It is often objected that 2 Peter says that believers have been granted to become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4a), without implying that they are God incarnate. However, 2 Peter uses a different expression and does so in a different context. Peter says that we have been made “partakers of divine nature” (θείας κοινωνοὶ φύσεως). Notice the difference between the word θείας, “divine,” and θεότητος, “deity.” In context this “divine nature” of which believers “partake” produces a moral and spiritual change by which we escape from the corruption of the world due to fallen desire (2 Peter 1:4b). Consequently, Peter says that we are to exhibit this transformation by virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love (1:5-7). This divine nature is not something we possess intrinsically as human beings, but rather something in which we are graciously allowed to share only through our faith relationship with God in Jesus Christ. Indeed, in contrast to the statement that we have become “partakers of the divine nature,” the epistle has just referred to Christ a few sentences earlier as “our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1).4

Going back to Colossians 2:9, Paul states that the fullness of the deity dwells in Christ “bodily” (σωματικῶς). Although this is the only NT text that uses this particular Greek word, its meaning is rather clear: The fullness of the deity dwells in Christ personally, substantially, in Jesus Christ who was raised bodily from the dead and is now the glorified, immortal, heavenly Lord. The apostle Paul had no difficulty using the word “body” and related forms in different ways while being quite clear about his meaning. Thus, after speaking of the church as Christ’s “body” (Col. 1:18), Paul said that God has reconciled us “in the body of his flesh through death” (1:22), obviously now referring to Christ’s own physical body (as the qualifying expression “of his flesh,” τῆς σαρκὸς αὐτοῦ, makes explicit). Then Paul goes back to referring to “his body, that is, the church” (1:24), again signaling his reference explicitly. Thus, we must understand each of Paul’s uses of “body,” as well as his one use of the word “bodily,” in context. In Colossians 2:9, “bodily” is used specifically in reference to Christ (“in him”), and therefore refers to the personal body of Jesus Christ as the form in which all the fullness of the deity dwells.5

The Old Testament background to these sayings focuses on Mount Zion and the temple that eventually stood there.6 In one of his Psalms, David spoke of Zion as “the mountain which God was pleased to dwell in it” (Ps. 68:16). The language here is remarkably similar to Colossians 1:19: 

εὐδόκησεν ὁ θεός κατοικῆσαιἐν αὐτῷ (Ps. 67:16 LXX)
ἐν αὐτῷ εὐδόκησεν πᾶν τὸ πλήρωμα κατοικῆσαι (Col. 1:19)
ἐν αὐτῷ κατοικεῖ πᾶν τὸ πλήρωμα τῆς θεότητος σωματικῶς (Col. 2:9)

While the language is very similar, what Paul says about Christ goes far beyond what the Old Testament said about Mount Zion or the temple. Although the temple was spoken of as a place for God to “dwell” (e.g., Ps. 9:11; 76:2; 132:13), from the very beginning Solomon, at the temple dedication, acknowledged that God’s true dwelling place was Heaven (1 Kings 8:12-13, 27, 30, 39, 43, 49; 2 Chron. 6:18, 21, 30, 33, 39). What Paul says about Christ, on the other hand, is that all the fullness of what constitutes God dwells bodily in him. The presence and nature of God is totally or wholly (“all” or “whole”) found in Christ; it is fully (“fullness”) found in Christ; it is found in him personally (“in him”); and it is found in him bodily (Col. 2:9). It is difficult to imagine a more forceful, emphatic affirmation that Jesus Christ literally embodies God’s very being.

Some argue that Colossians 2:10 (“and you have come to fullness in him”) shows that the “fullness” of verse 9 does not mean that Jesus has God’s very nature. The reasoning seems simple enough: Paul says that we have the fullness, but we’re not God by nature; therefore, saying that Jesus has the fullness doesn’t make him God by nature, either.7 But this argument misconstrues the relationship between the two statements. Paul is not saying that believers have the fullness of the deity dwelling in them bodily as well! Rather, he is saying that because God’s fullness is found in Christ personally, those who are united to Christ (who are “in him”) have the fullness of God’s power and love working in their lives. In both cases it is God’s fullness, but in the case of Christ it resides in him personally and bodily, whereas in our case that fullness is mediated to us through our relationship with Christ.

Finally, let’s look at a passage in Ephesians that makes the same point as Colossians 2:10. We quoted it earlier: 

“that Christ may dwell through faith in your hearts…
and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,
that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19). 

Here Paul uses both the verb “filled” and the noun “fullness,” along with the verb “dwell” (κατοικῆσαι) that he had used in Colossians 2:9. Does this statement in any way call into question understanding Colossians 2:9 to affirm the deity of Christ? Not at all. Notice how Paul uses the words here: He prays that “the Christ may dwell through faith in your hearts” (Eph. 3:17). This is not even close to saying that God dwells bodily in believers. Rather than “bodily,” this dwelling is “in your hearts.” Moreover, this dwelling happens “through faith,” that is, Christ dwells in our hearts as we have faith in him. This “dwelling” depends on us having a relationship with Christ in which we have faith in him and receive all of our spiritual blessings from him. This dwelling of Christ in us is analogous to the Incarnation, but it is not an incarnation, just as our status as children of God is analogous to Christ’s status as the Son of God but is not to be confused or equated with it. In Paul’s theology, Christ is intrinsically God’s beloved Son, and we have received “the adoption as sons” by which we are graciously invited into that relationship with God as our Father through faith and will eventually “be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:14-29; Gal. 4:4-7; Col. 1:12-14).

Those who have Christ dwelling in their hearts through faith experience his presence as Christ’s love, a love “that surpasses knowledge.” In this context, Paul’s prayer “that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19) clearly means that we experience God’s loving presence in our lives in a full way, not that we become fully divine beings. But notice how Christ-centered the whole Christian life is according to Paul’s prayer. He prays that Christ may dwell in our hearts and that we may know the love of Christ. Christ is intrinsically divine, capable of dwelling in our hearts, having a love that surpasses knowledge. We can “be filled with all the fullness of God” because Christ’s divine presence can mediate that fullness to us, but Christ is divine and we are not. Finally, note the “Trinitarian” pattern of Paul’s prayer as a whole: 

For this reason I bend my knees toward the Father…
that…he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit…
so that Christ may dwell through faith in your hearts…
to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,
that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (Eph. 3:14-19). 

Who or what dwells in us or fills us as believers? The answer, from varying perspectives in this one passage, can be the Spirit, Christ, or God. This indwelling divine presence is granted by the Father through the Spirit as the love of Christ in our hearts. The Father, Christ, and the Spirit are all divine sources of blessing (as Paul had already laid out earlier in the same epistle, Eph. 1:3-14). This entire prayer and the spiritual life that it envisions, then, presupposes what is later formally described in the doctrine of the Trinity. 

 

NOTES


1 NT texts are translated literally except as otherwise noted.

2 One should note that Paul uses this imagery or metaphor differently in Colossians and Ephesians than in 1 Corinthians, where members of the church are compared to both the head and other parts of the body (1 Cor. 12:12-27; see also Rom. 12:4-5).

3 Louw and Nida, Lexicon. The word is simply the Greek word for God (theos) with an ending indicating nature or state (-tēs).

4 On the translation of 2 Peter 1:1, see Robert M. Bowman Jr. and J. Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), 150–56.

5 The next three paragraphs repeat material from Bowman and Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place, 76–77.

6 Noted briefly by Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ, 506, citing Christian Stettler, Der Kolosserhymnus (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000), 252–59.

7 E.g., Greg Stafford, Jehovah’s Witnesses Defended, 160.

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