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Groups of Christians still battle each other today to promote the rights or even the salvation of one group over against another. Gender or sexual orientation rather than faith in Jesus Christ has come to determine the believer's status within a congregation. Against a masculine God, then, a feminine God is promoted by some, while for others Christian faith is defined or denied by sexual orientation. In the recent political campaign in America, some conservative Republican believers went so far as to argue that Christian faith and support for Democratic candidates were mutually exclusive! Paul would have no part of such a divisive debate, except to remind all believers that in Jesus Christ many different people have one faith in common (compare Col 3:11; Gal 3:28).
In a similar way, Jewish Christian (and Judaic) opponents of Paul's Gentile mission debated his interpretation of the biblical doctrine of election (see Acts 15:1-21; Gal 2:1-10). Paul taught that even as God had elected Jews for salvation, so also God had elected Gentiles out of the world for salvation. In Christ, Jewish and non-Jewish believers have equal value and access to God, since all ethnic and national barriers have been demolished by Christ's death (Eph 2:11-22). Yet some early believers, recognizing that Christianity began as a messianic movement within Judaism, taught that to be Christian meant to remain Jewish. They argued that the Torah laws and the Jewish traditions must be observed so as to maintain the ethnic and socioreligious distinctives of God's people. Paul's response to these Jewish Christian opponents was that God's promised salvation has already been fulfilled by Jesus Christ, and the blessings of God's salvation are now experienced by those who belong to him by faith (rather than by ethnicity or religious observance).
The missiological issue facing every person after Christ, then, is this: How does one enter into Christ, and how does one remain in him in order to participate in the blessings of God's salvation? The short answer given by Paul is sola fide—"by faith alone."
Thus Paul begins his summary with the controversial claim that God has chosen . . . Gentiles (see also 3:11-12). The story of God's salvation which Paul proclaims begins here: to make known to the Gentiles that God is for them too! Paul hinted at this earlier when he wrote that God's salvation was for every creature under heaven (1:23; see also 1:20). But he is more pointed here. Official Judaism would not deny God's universal salvation; after all, Isaiah taught that salvation would extend through one restored nation to all nations. Yet according to the prophet, God's salvation of the Gentile nations depended upon Israel: they would be saved only through and because of the faithfulness of the Jewish nation. Even in Paul's day, Hellenistic Judaism was committed to an evangelism program, seeking to convert and proselytize non-Jews. But Gentile converts to Judaism were second-class citizens both religiously and sociopolitically. In light of this religious tradition, Paul's teaching about Gentile conversion is controversial precisely because it is so egalitarian: believing Gentiles and Jews share God's universal salvation equally in Christ.
Gentiles need not go through any Judaic hoops to covenant with God for salvation. The means and hope of their salvation is christological: that Christ in you is the only hope of glory (see also 2:2). This formulation of the christological core of his gospel, Christ in you, reverses the sense of Paul's previous statement that we are "in Christ" (see my commentary on 1:2 and 1:16); here it is Christ who is "in us." At the very least, this reversal of familiar terms calls his audience's attention to Paul's participatory Christology, in which believers participate with Christ in the outworking of God's salvation within history. Such a unity promises Christlike suffering as well as Christlike exaltation (or, in Wright's phrase, "the guarantee of resurrection"; 1986:92).
An additional clue to the meaning of the Christ in you formula may be provided by Galatians 1:15, where Paul writes that God revealed the mystery of Christ "in me." Many scholars now believe that Paul is referring here to a personal experience of divine revelation, perhaps on the Damascus Road (see above), by which God disclosed the content of Paul's gospel to him. I suspect that in this autobiographical passage of Colossians Paul may have a similar meaning in mind. That is, the gospel of God's salvation, which proclaims Christ in you, is validated by Paul's own religious experience of "Christ in me." In this case, the phrase calls attention not only to the christological message proclaimed to the Gentiles but to its trustworthiness as the "word of truth" (see 1:5, 7).
In the light of Paul's participatory Christology, the community's hope of glory is not oriented toward the future return of Christ; rather, we hope to experience the benefits of being reconciled with God right now through our present union with the Lord Christ (1:15-20). To hope in the One who is already glorified is to have hope for a transformed today. Paul does not deny the cosmic importance of Christ's Second Coming (see 3:1-4); yet for these readers, whose religion is in retreat from the world, the apostle emphasizes that a vital relationship with the glorified Christ results in a profoundly hopeful orientation toward the possibilities of life on this side of the Lord's parousia.