Col 1:5 — hope laid up in heaven

[4] since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, [5] because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel (Colossians 1:4-5)

The reader should not interpret the following discussion as a criticism of Douglas Moo’s1 commentary on Colossians 1:5. His comments in this context are surprisingly vague on the issues of “salvation” and “hope” and this lack of clarity yields plenty of room for interpretation. I am taking issue not so much with his comments as with how his comments would be understood when viewed through the lens of the modern church’s understanding of “salvation.”

Regarding Colossians 1:5, Moo comments: “The apostle Paul often uses ‘hope’ to refer to the attitude of hope (e.g., Rom. 4:18; 5:5; 2 Cor. 3:12). [In Col 1:5], however, it pretty clearly denotes that which Christians hope for: ‘the totality of blessing that awaits the Christian in the life to come‘ (as also in, e.g., Titus 1:2, where the hope consists in eternal life, and 1 Pet. 1:4, where it is virtually identified with the ‘inheritance’.” (my emphasis)

Sorting through the abundance of detail in these two sentences may be off-putting for some, but we can distill its contents down and conclude that Moo apparently subscribes to a version of the gospel that teaches Christians that salvation means that, since Jesus died for my sins and I am now forgiven, I get to go to heaven when I die. This view is not so much an error as it is a representation of the gospel that is so much less than what Jesus taught and is far too narrow, excluding too much of the New Testament, including the significance of the resurrection of Christ. Again, it is possible that Moo does not understand hope in this way, but many of his readers would likely see his comment as supporting this expression of the Christian hope.

Is such a view of salvation and the Christian hope accurate in the sense of encapsulating the entirety of the message of the New Testament, rather than just part of it? Is the hope of “heaven when I die” sufficient? For example, is it sufficient to explain Paul’s response to extreme adversity in his life as described, for example, in Romans 8 or 2 Corinthians 11, especially when considering the glaring absence of a temporal reward?2 Since whole books have been written on these topics, a short essay such as this cannot engage their full breadth. However, this essay can focus on two, narrower questions that are germane to Paul’s use of the word hope in Colossians 1:5.

(1) What is the Christian hope?
(2) Why is the Christian hope so powerful?

The trouble with hope

Hope is a crucial aspect of life. It is widely appreciated, particularly among mental health experts, that human beings cannot live without hope. Not all hopes are created equal, though. I hope that the deer do not bring Lyme disease into my yard. No mental health expert would consider this hope to be up to the task of getting me through any trial more severe than a hangnail.

Hope and what one hopes for are separate, though clearly related, aspects of this topic. Moo refers to these two concepts in the quote, above, where he uses the phrases “attitude of hope” and “that which Christians hope for,” stating further that when Paul uses the term hope, he is really referring to what is hoped for. The quality of one’s hope is purely a function of what one hopes for. We get a clear indication of the magnitude or quality of the hope that possessed the apostle Paul in that what he hope for enabled him (and many others) to endure, with joy, the trials and tribulations he faced.

Whether or not the hope associated with “I get to go to heaven when I die” is sufficient to meet the trials of life is a judgment call. Many Christians believe that it is and, in so doing, would refer to “heaven when I die” as the Christian hope. In an affluent society where few of us face adversity of the kind Paul and Jesus faced, putting this hope to a serious test is not an everyday event. Nevertheless, there is an overabundance of data from George Barna3 and other sources, including personal observation, indicating that this hope is not up to the task. Anger, arrogance, discontentment, frustration, unthankfulness, judgmentalism, jealousy, and many other sins, are known to be widespread problems among Christians.4 Domestic abuse, adultery, and pornography use are not uncommon problems in Christian homes. If the hope of “going to heaven when I die” is sufficient to meet the challenges of living in an evil society (“a crooked generation”), then why are Christians not known to be people of strong character like the apostles Peter and John and Paul, not to mention Jesus?

The adversity that the apostle Paul faced was extraordinary.

[23] …with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. [24] Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. [25] Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; [26] on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; [27] in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. (2 Corinthians 11:23-27)

Most Christians would have caved in at the first comma in verse 23! What does it take to endure such treatment? It requires a hope that is so powerful and all-consuming that any adversity, including stoning and crucifixion, is insufficient to snuff it out. Thirty-five of the 40 verses in Hebrews 11 recount the stories of God’s people who, fortified by such a hope, withstood unimaginable adversity. This is the history of God’s people… at least until the modern age.

At this point, the kickback is predictable. “Well, I’m not Paul, so this doesn’t apply to me.” It is true that none of us is the apostle Paul. But all Christians are, by definition if nothing else, followers of Jesus who said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matt 16:24) And then he was crucified. What does it take to be the kind of person who would deny himself and take up his cross?

Lest the religious language be a stumbling block, Jesus’ invitation can be rephrased: What does it take to be a person of impeccable character who has rearranged their entire life so that it revolves around Jesus? What does it take to be the kind of person Paul prays for in Colossians 1: people living lives fully pleasing to God, being strengthened with all power according to His glorious might, so that they can endure anything with unlimited patience. Why would Paul pray this for the Colossians if he did not think it possible? Of course he thought it possible! His own life demonstrated that it was possible, which makes us wonder: “What was the hope that powered him through extreme adversity?”

What is the Christian hope?

For many Christians, hope lies in the anticipation of going to heaven at the time of death. This is a half-truth, but as J.I. Packer noted, “a half-truth masquerading as a whole truth becomes a complete untruth.” N.T. Wright, in Surprised by Hope5, wrote:

It comes as something of a shock, in fact, when people are told what is in fact the case: that there is very little in the Bible about ‘going to heaven when you die.’

Be careful to note that he does not say the Bible says nothing about this subject. He is simply characterizing “going to heaven when you die” as only half the truth at best, a minor point in the New Testament.

What is the major point, then? One can hardly think of a better description of the major point than this:

[20] But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. [23] But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. [24] Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. [25] For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. [26] The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:20,23-26)]

The meaning of the resurrection in the life of the Christian cannot be overestimated. If Christ was not raised, then everything is lost. Everything. If Christ was raised, then everything is changed. Everything. The resurrection persistently figured so prominently in Paul’s mind that he did not miss the opportunity to reiterate to the Colossians (whom he had never met!) the fact of Christ’s resurrection and he does so only a very few verses after writing “the hope laid up in heaven…”

He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. (Colossians 1:18b)

And, if Christ is the firstborn from the dead, then we will be next. Our raised bodies will not be some pale imitation of the “real” thing. We will have bodies just like Jesus’ body when he met his disciples after the crucifixion. With his transformed body, he walked and talked and ate and performed miracles. God will give us real, physical bodies. Rather than flitting about clouds in heaven, as too many Christians believe and as too much art for centuries has depicted, we will “live and move and have our being” on the earth, a real earth, in a thoroughly transformed world in which our enemies, including Satan and death itself, will have been vanquished for good, at last.

Why is this Christian hope so powerful?

hope laid up in heaven…” Our hope is wrapped up in the resurrection and all that surrounds it. The resurrection changes everything because it means that, with Christ, the new creation has begun, that God is unimaginably powerful, and that his love never ended and will never end. Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of the end, the last days. His resurrection changes everything because the resurrection speaks to the greatness of God and of the hope that he infuses into those who fear him. This hope is not hiding in heaven; it suffuses our entire life right now. It is not hope in the sense of “Well, I can’t be sure, but I hope so.” It is hope in the sense of “I can’t wait!” It is a hope in something so glorious and powerful that trials and troubles in this life pale in comparison (Romans 8:18).

hope laid up in heaven…” Resurrection means that we can hope for the day that God sets everything to rights. It means that this life is not the end and is not all that matters. It puts things that happen in this life into sharp relief. It tells me where I should be focusing my time, attention, and energy: on God Himself. It changes everything.

hope laid up in heaven…” It is an unrivaled hope. It is a hope of such magnitude and glory that it is impossible to imagine. It is a hope that is so grand that “the sufferings of this world are not worthy to be compared” with its glory. It is our hope. It is a hope for our time.

At this point, the reveling has to stop, because what I have described is most decidedly not the single source of the power of our hope despite all the glory that God has in store. Paul did not endure unimaginable trouble only because he thought he would get a new body. Certainly, that was part of it. But not the most powerful part.

In Genesis 3, we read this: And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day… This could hardly have been the single day in the life of Adam and Eve when God was walking around in the garden. I expect that the three of them spent time in the garden together, enjoying each other’s company every day. A trinity, in some respects.

Now, jump all the way to Revelation 21: And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. It is Genesis 3 restored. Psalm 104 describes God as being clothed in splendor and majesty, clothed in light. He makes the clouds his chariot and he rides on the wings of the wind. …we shall see him as he is… (1 Jn 3:2) and will get to walk in the garden with Him in the cool of the day, every day, as God has always intended from the beginning.

God will give us transformed bodies and our dwelling with him will be transformed, too. But even in these we do not find the full explanation for the power of our hope. Our hope is powerful not just because it is glorious, and not just because we will actually dwell with God and He with us, but because it will happen. We should not be fooled by the apparent delay. From the time Moses spoke of a “prophet like me” that God would raise up, it took a thousand years for God to put the Messiah on the ground. With the coming of Jesus, we are now in the last days and the last day will come because our God is that powerful.

Psalm 105:19 speaks of the time when Joseph was in Egypt, having been sold into slavery by his own brothers. The Psalmist writes, until what he had said came to pass, the word of the LORD tested him. Most of Joseph’s time in Egypt was a time of testing, not a time of glory. In a previous post6, I wrote about Joseph during many years of adversity:

there is no possibility that Joseph could see God’s plan in any of these circumstances. There was no rhyme or reason to any them. Life went from bad to worse. “My brothers meant evil against me, but God meant it for good?” Really? Which part is good? The murderous hatred of his brothers? the makeshift prison shaped like a well? the caravan? the slavery? the rape charge? jail? The dream he had back in the homeland in which he would come to rule over his eleven brothers was pure fantasy at this point. Impossible.

Joseph was able to endure all those years for one simple reason: his God was big. Really big. Unimaginably big. Big enough for the apostle John to write of God, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” Joseph knew that his God was big enough to pull off the impossible… like transforming an entire world including our bodies, destroying every enemy, and living among His people. Our hope is not so much a hope for but a hope in, for we hope in an unimaginably powerful God. That is the only kind of hope that can keep us going when adversity strikes, and it will. That hope got Paul through shipwrecks and beatings and stonings. It got Jesus through a crucifixion and death. No other hope is up to the task. No other hope will do.

Our hope lies in God and God alone. God is what our hope is all about. There is no other hope. And it is a hope that has already begun to be unveiled.

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

  1. Moo, Douglas J. The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008.
  2. Scripture references:
    For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:18)[23] with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. [24] Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. [25] Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; [26] on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; [27] in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. (2 Corinthians 11:23-27)”And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised” (Hebrews 11:39)
  3. Barna, George. Growing True Disciples, WaterBrook, 2001.
  4. Bridges, Jerry. Respectable Sins, NavPress, 2007.
  5. Wright, N.T., Surprised by Hope, HarperOne, 2009.
  6. God meant it for good