On an email discussion list, a question was asked about Colossians 1:23: “if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister” (ESV). Had the gospel been preached “to every creature” by that time?
The phrase “in all creation under heaven” is probably a figure of speech called hyperbole, exaggeration for effect. Paul uses it possibly to impress on the Colossians, upon whom he urges faithfulness, the powerful penetration of the gospel in the world. If it is powerful to spread across the world, it is also powerful to keep them safe and, as God’s tool, to “present [them] holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (v. 22). This truth would provide them with yet another powerful motivation for continued faithfulness in the face of false teachers who wanted to place doubts in their minds about the sufficiency of their faith in Christ.
In the letter to the Romans, Paul wants them to help him go to Spain, this around 55-56 A.D. There’s no biblical evidence that he ever went there, but scholars think that, if he did, it would have been possibly around 64 A.D., several years after the writing of Colossians in 60 A.D. or so. If he didn’t go, that would also militate, of course, against a literal reading of the phrase “in all creation under heaven” (Col. 1:23).
From verse 6 of Col. 1, Paul makes it clear that this proclamation “in the whole world” (ESV) was still ongoing. The two verses likely indicate the worldwide scope of the gospel (echoing Jesus’ “The field is the world” in Matt. 13:38), so The Lutheran Study Bible, rather than trying to affirm that every single geographical point had already been covered.
Having said that, we should not diminish the truth of how the first century Christians did, to a large degree, proclaim the gospel the world over. They had the single-minded focus of their Lord in the preaching of the gospel in every place where it was yet unknown.
One writer pondered this verse and said that it “shows that the gospel can be spread over the world in one generation. We seem to lack the faith or the courage to attempt to do this.” I wonder if that is true of some in our brotherhood.