What is the meaning of Colossians 1:17?

What is the meaning of Colossians 1:17? Recently I was doing a Bible study in Colossians and the last part of the verse caught my attention because the Greek word didn’t seem to have anything to do with holding things together.  So I did a word study on this.

Colossians 1:17

The New International Version (NIV) translates Colossians 1:17 as:

He is before all things,
and in him all things hold together.

Those last two words “hold together” were translated from the Greek word sunistemi which comes from two Greek words, sun (with, together) and histemi (to stand, place, put, set).

This puzzled me as to how this Greek word came to be translated as “hold together”.  I was also aware of the fact that this aspect of Christ holding all things together is quite well known, especially with Christians having a science background, but it is based solely on this verse.

So my next task was to investigate how this Greek word was used in other New Testament passages

Word study on Greek word sunistemi

This word occurs 16 times in the New Testament in 15 verses. In particular, it occurs 9 times (i.e. over half) in 2 Corinthians alone.

Here is how I summarised the different usages of this word:

  • To stand with – Luke 9:32
  • To demonstrate, bring out, prove (i.e. the idea of making something or someone stand out) – Romans 3:5, Romans 5:8, 2 Cor 7:11. Gal 2:18
  • To recommend, commend (i.e. again the idea of making something or someone stand out) – Romans 16:1, 2 Cor 3:1, 2 Cor 4:2, 2 Cor 5:12, 2 Cor 6:4, 2 Cor 10:12, 2 Cor 10:18 (2x), 2 Cor 12:11.
  • To stand (out), lift (out) – 2 Pet 3:5 (I preferred the KJV or BBE translation for this verse)
  • Colossians 1:17 – To be determined (see below)

Context of Colossians 1:17

The context of a passage is crucial to understanding the meaning of an unclear word.

Let’s have a look at verses 15 – 20 from the NIV:

He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn over all creation.
For by him all things were created:
things in heaven and on earth,
visible and invisible,
whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities;
all things were created by him and for him.
He is before all things,
and in him all things hold together.
And he is the head of the body, the church;
he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead,
so that in everything he might have the supremacy.
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,
and through him to reconcile to himself all things,
whether things on earth or things in heaven,
by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Here are some ways that I came up with to translate this Greek word at the end of Colossians 1:17 which, in my  opinion, fit better with both the context and word usage.

He is before all things, and in him all things {have their place / have their position / have their place of standing}.

This reinforces the surrounding verses, especially the preceding one. All things were created not only by him but for him. This includes thrones, powers, rulers and authorities (v16). Things find their proper place when they are viewed in terms of their relationship with Christ, as they have been created for him. This is true for leadership (v16 – created by him and for him), the church (v18 – Christ is the head of the body, the church), the dead (v18 – like Christ, the dead will be resurrected) and all of creation (v20 – creation will be reconciled because of Christ’s death on the cross).

There is also a principle here for us to meditate on, i.e. the personal application of this passage. Our role fits into place only when Christ is in His proper place in our life. First and foremost, we need to trust in Christ’s death on the Cross to reconcile us, as sinners (Rom 5:8), with a holy God, rather than turning our back on what Christ has done and trusting other ways to have a right standing before a holy, pure, perfect God. Secondly, it means that Christ must have first place in our lives; he must be in the driver’s seat and not merely a passenger. The New Testament, in particular, is full of descriptions of what this means and looks like, for example, seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33) or set your hearts and minds on the things above, where Christ is (Colossians 3:1,2).

Think about these things.