In his epistles, St. Paul employs a simple yet profound metaphor to describe Christ’s divinity.
For in Him dwells the whole fullness of the deity bodily (Colossians 2:9).
For in Him all the fullness was pleased to dwell (Colossians 1:19).
Hence, the Church’s emphasis on the truth that through the Incarnation Christ became fully human and fully divine. We tend to think of the fullness of Christ’s divinity in the sense of completeness: He is so completely God we can simply just say that He is God. But there is a depth of meaning behind this term that goes beyond this. It beckons our exploration not only in order to grow in devotion towards Christ but also in order to understand the incredible promise this divine fullness holds for us.
In the original Greek, the word fullness is plērōma, which in both ancient Stoic thought and in the Greek version of the Old Testament was used to describe the way that God is present throughout His whole creation, according to biblical commentator James D. G. Dunn. For example, in Jeremiah 23:24, the Lord declares,
Can anyone hide in secret
without my seeing them?
Do I not fill
heaven and earth?
Likewise, there is Psalm 139:7-9,
Where can I go from your spirit?
From your presence, where can I flee?
If I ascend to the heavens, you are there;
if I lie down in Sheol, there you are.
If I take the wings of dawn
and dwell beyond the sea,
Even there your hand guides me,
your right hand holds me fast.
And, finally, Wisdom 1:7 states,
For the spirit of the LORD fills the world,
is all-embracing, and knows whatever is said.
The above verses emphasize God’s fullness in the sense of encompassing all of creation. This fullness takes on two aspects. First it means that God is all-knowing: there is no place one can ‘hide in secret’—not in Sheol, not beyond the sea and the sky. Second, at the end of the Psalm, God’s presence becomes a source of both guidance and consolation.
Colossians 1 builds upon this background in explaining how the divine fullness dwells within Christ;
He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation.
For in Him were created all things in heaven and on earth,
the visible and the invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers;
all things were created through him and for him.
He is before all things,
and in Him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church.
He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
that in all things He himself might be preeminent (verses 16-18).
Here we see God’s omnipresence as sustaining and enabling all created life. And it is in the person of Christ specifically that this work is carried out. Notice how the passage pivots from creation to the Church: just as Christ carries all creation within Himself so also he bears within Himself the Church, which is the new creation. It is after all His body, of which He is the head.
And Paul tells us that this fullness of God who is present throughout the vast cosmos will also dwell within us. In Colossians 2:10, right after saying that the “whole fullness of the deity” is in Christ Paul adds this: “and you share in this fullness in Him.” In Ephesians 3:19, Paul goes even further. It’s not just that we will share in the fullness of God—His fullness will actually “fill us.” This promise comes in the context of a prayer for Paul’s readers:
Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
The above phrasing is a distinctive way of emphasizing a truth in ancient Hebrew writing, which would have influenced Paul. The emphasis simply consists in repeating the key word. So, for example, in the Annunciation to the Shepherds in Luke 2:9 a typical translation would describe their reaction this way:
The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear.
But the literal Greek reads: they feared with great fear. Likewise, in Genesis 2:17, God warns against eating the fruit of the forbidden true because otherwise Adam and Even would “surely die.” Except in the Hebrew His words are recorded this way: dying you shall die. I’ve even heard it put as you shall die die.
The promise of the fullness of God should already spark holy fear. But, just in case you miss the message, Paul drives home the point: we will be filled with the fullness of God. We’re not just getting a piece of the fullness. We’re not just getting a lot of it. We’re getting all of it.
How exactly can we be filled with the fullness of God? What must we do to prepare for this?
I believe the answer is that we must first be emptied.
How can we do this?
According to Paul, Christ has already shown us the way:
Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11).
Of course, Christ also retained His divinity in His descent. This is the mystery of the Incarnation: He both experienced the sheer emptiness of humanity and simultaneously the fullness of God. And so in His person, Christ maps out the journey we must follow—from emptiness to fullness.
On the cross, the way of humility is shown to us in its most dramatic fashion. Jesus encounters that radical void that has been eating away at humanity: the terror of God’s absence and the void the results from it. This moment is voiced out in his cry: My God, my God why have you forsaken me?
Christ so radically desired to be with us that He chose to even take upon Himself our experience of divine abandonment. And, in so doing, he transformed and redeemed that sense of existential loneliness, making it an essential step on the pathway to encountering the fullness of God. A number of saints have witnessed to this phenomenon—captured in that searing phrase of St. John of the Cross: ‘the dark night of the soul.’ (For more see this source here.)
Our emptiness, then, is what enables us to be filled with the fullness of God.
There is also a strong moral component to the process of self-emptying. Paul clearly identifies it in Christ: it is this combination of radical humility and absolute obedience—even to the point of death on a cross. To be obedient to another is to submit your will to theirs—Not My will, but Thy will.
In a way, our will is that part of us which is most ‘us.’ Our will is what steers both our thoughts and actions and how we respond to the memories, urges, and desires that bubble up us. When we say “I want to…” the ‘I’ to which we refer is expressed through our will.
In setting aside His will, then, Christ is truly sacrificing His very self. Therefore, it is only by imitating His example and ‘dying to ourselves’ that we will be able to enter into the kind of absolute emptiness that is but a necessary prelude to the dazzling fullness of divine glory that is promised to us.