“I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” (Colossians 1:24)
My eyes always widen when I read those New Testament phrases about rejoicing in suffering. It’s not a concept I find easy to understand.
And this sounds trickier still: “I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.”
How? How can I do any such thing? What is “lacking in Christ’s afflictions”? Surely the price has been paid in full, “It is finished…”
True, but what is lacking is our part in it. Two great paraphrases draw this out. Here’s Eugene Peterson:
“There’s a lot of suffering to be entered into in this world—the kind of suffering Christ takes on. I welcome the chance to take my share in the church’s part of that suffering. When I became a servant in this church, I experienced this suffering as a sheer gift, God’s way of helping me serve you, laying out the whole truth.”
And here’s J.B.Phillips:
“Though it is true at this moment that I am suffering on behalf of you who have heard the Gospel, yet I am far from sorry about it. Indeed, I am glad, because it gives me a chance to complete in my own sufferings something of the untold pains for which Christ suffers on behalf of his body, the Church.”
So what does it mean that in Paul’s sufferings he fills up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions? What did it mean for him? What does it mean for us?
Simply put, what’s missing is the in-person presentation of Christ’s sufferings to the people for whom he died. The afflictions are lacking in the sense that they are not seen and known among the nations. They must be carried by ministers of the gospel. And those ministers of the gospel fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ by telling the story far and wide.
Paul sees the troubles of his own life as the visible re-enactment of the sufferings of Christ so that they will see Christ’s love for them.
There’s a useful parallel in Philippians 2:30. When the church at Philippi gathered some support for Paul, they sent it with Epaphroditus. As he journeyed, he almost lost his life. Verse 27 says he was sick to the point of death, but God spared him.
Then in verse 29 Paul tells the church in Philippi to honour Epaphroditus , “Because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete [i.e., fill up] what was lacking in your service to me.” Now in the original the phrase “completing what was lacking” in your service to me is almost the same as “filling up what is lacking” in Christ’s afflictions.
In what sense, then, was the service of the Philippians to Paul “lacking” and in what sense did Epaphroditus “fill up” what was lacking in their service?
Marvin Vincent explains: “The gift to Paul was a gift of the church as a body. It was a sacrificial offering of love. What was lacking, and what would have been grateful to Paul and to the church alike, was the church’s presentation of this offering in person. This was impossible, and Paul represents Epaphroditus as supplying this lack by his affectionate and zealous ministry.”
That’s what’s happening in Colossians 1:24. Christ has prepared a love offering for the world by suffering and dying for sinners. It is full and lacking in nothing—except one thing, a personal presentation by Christ himself to the nations of your world and the people up your street.
God’s answer to this lack is to call the people of Christ (people like Paul) to present the afflictions of Christ to the world—to carry them from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.
In doing this we “fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ.” We finish what they were designed for, namely, a personal presentation to the world of people who do not know about their real value.
But don’t you see how closely Paul ties up the matter of his own suffering with the suffering of Christ? What this means, I think, is that God intends for the afflictions of Christ to be presented to the world through the afflictions of his people. God really means for the body of Christ, the church, to experience some of the suffering he experienced so that when we offer the Christ of the cross to people, they see the Christ of the cross in us. We are to make the afflictions of Christ real for people by the afflictions we experience in offering him to them, and living the life of love he lived.
“I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake . . . filling up that which is lacking in the afflictions of Christ.” Christ wills to have a personal presentation of his sufferings to the world. And the way he means to offer himself as a sufferer for the world to the world is through his people who, like him, are willing to suffer for the world.
His sufferings are completed in our sufferings because in ours the world sees his, and they have their appointed effect. The suffering love of Christ for sinners is seen in the suffering love of his people for sinners.
Other texts go even further. Mark 8:35 “Whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s shall save it.” The Gospel path means “losing one’s life for the sake of the gospel.” Bonhoeffer said, “When Jesus calls someone, he bids him come and die…”
The point is that taking the gospel to people (across the street or across the world) ordinarily requires a denying of self. In this way, you might almost say, suffering is God’s strategy for completing the Great Commission.
But don’t miss that word rejoice in verse 24: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.” This may be a painful road, but it is a profoundly happy one. And, as John Piper once said: “You can’t escape pain; so why not make it meaningful?”
When we choose comfort and security over the sacrifice of ministry, we choose against joy.
I was talking with my solicitor the other day. In the course of the conversation, she said: “I’m taking great pains to see this done well.”
Somehow the phrase stuck in my head. Great pains? Of course, I know what it means. It means a conscientious commitment to detail (like the word “painstaking”) whatever the cost.
(And when the solicitor used it I flinched, expecting a bigger bill in consequence. )
But it’s an odd phrase. I looked it up: “Thorough, scrupulous. Painstaking, careful, meticulous, conscientious all describe persons or behaviour demonstrating attention to detail and effective task performance. Painstaking stressses diligent and assiduous attention to detail in achieving a desired objective…”
And that pain aspect?
If the phrase is taken to mean a total investment, a complete commitment whatever the personal cost, then Jesus exemplified it completely. He is the Taker of Pains par excellence.
And if I am found in Him, then I too am the Taker of Pains, for the sake of the Gospel. God is calling us in this text to live for the sake of the gospel and to do that through suffering. Christ chose suffering, it didn’t just happen to him. He chose it as the way to create and perfect the church. Now he calls us to choose suffering. That is, he calls us to take up our cross and follow him on the Calvary road and deny ourselves and make sacrifices for the sake of presenting his suffering to the world and ministering to the church.