As we explore our passage this week, I feel like we should deal address the elephant in our text first.
1:24 “Now 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 the body, that is, the church…”
Are you with me on this? What does Paul mean when he says that there is something lacking in Christ’s afflictions? I don’t know how you feel, but this sounds kind of blasphemous to me! Obviously there is nothing lacking in Christ’s afflictions. Paul has just spent the first 23 verses of chapter one arguing for the Supremacy of Christ. He was afflicted to the point of death on a cross. He carried the weight of the sin of the WORLD on his shoulders. He was afflicted physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. You and I put our entire hope on the sufficiency of his affliction – that his work on the cross was everything that we need to be set free from sin and death to be made alive with Christ to inherit the Kingdom of God. If there is something lacking in this, we better be worried.
But we need not worry. Scripture tells us clearly and often that Jesus’ sacrifice was perfectly enough. In addition to the preceding verses in Colossians,
Hebrews 10:10-14 “And by that will (the will of the Father) we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”
We must approach the text of Colossians 1:24 in light of everything else God’s Word says. We must approach the text believing that what it says is true. And we must approach it with the confidence that God’s Word does not contradict itself. Therefore, we must do the work to find out what it is really saying, not simply what it seems to say in our modern translation.
Sometimes this gets a little sticky. When we have a difficult passage like this, it is good and logical to look to guidance from trusted preachers, teachers and theologians. You might listen to a sermon or two, read some commentaries or search for articles on the topic. And you might find all sorts of different perspectives. It can be frustrating to not find a definite answer. Such is the case with verse 24. However, one thing everyone agrees on is that Paul is certainly not saying that Christ’s sacrifice was not enough. It most certainly was enough.
I’m going to quickly give you a couple of different suggestions for what Paul might mean.
- Some believe that there is a measure of afflictions that have to be completed before Christ will return in glory (Rev 6:9-11) (Zondervan Study Bible)
- It may refer to Christ’s physical absence. Paul’s physical presence in some way makes up for it. (Zondervan Study Bible)
- Another view is that Christ continues to suffer when his followers suffer for him. “Since the church is Christ’s body, He is affected when it is affected. For the sake of Christ’s body, Paul willingly suffered.” (Bible Knowledge Commentary, pg 675)
- One commentary explains that “It is not Christ’s sufferings which are being completed but Christ’s sufferings-in-Paul. What is lacking or incomplete is Paul’s own experience of Christ’s afflictions, not something defective in Christ’s suffering. He makes the astonishing claim that he is suffering for them as Christ would suffer were he present bodily… Paul’s physical suffering as a member of Christ’s body represents Christ’s continuing suffering for the world through his servants.” (The NIV Application Commentary)
- John Piper, whom our lesson referenced, believes that “Christ’s afflictions are lacking in the sense that they are not seen and known among the nations…Paul sees his own suffering as the visible reenactment of the sufferings of Christ so that they will see Christ’s love for them.” In other words, in order for the work of Christ to take full effect, it needed to be proclaimed to the nations. How awful to imagine that Christ could have died for the sins of all, but no one knew.
Though I don’t have an exact answer for you, what is most important to note in this verse is that it’s not heresy, and that having an exact answer is not necessary in order to understand what Paul wants the Colossians to know. He wants them to know that he rejoices in his suffering as he suffers for the sake of the church.
Let’s move on and look at the rest of our passage. We will look at it from two different aspects:
- Paul’s ministry
- Paul’s struggle
Paul’s motive for his ministry is really a continuation of last week’s study. In the prior verses of Colossians 1, Paul has given us a beautiful description of who Christ is and what he has done for us. Jesus Christ is absolutely God, wholly supreme, and ruler of all. Yet he was willing and obedient to humble himself, becoming a man. In his humanity, he took on the weight of sin and death despite his perfect innocence. And he did it all for you and me. Paul was motivated by the person, character and work of Jesus Christ.
Paul encountered Christ in a dramatic way on the road to Damascus, because Christ had a dramatic task for Paul to do.
Acts 9:15 “The Lord said to him (Ananias), ‘Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.”
Paul was given the task of taking the good news not just to those he might have expected. Remember, Paul was a devout Jew. But God chose him to go to the Gentiles, to go to all the world and spread the gospel. His ministry was to grow the church, to make the Word of God fully known to all. He was called to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, which is Christ in us, all of us. He knew that he was responsible for “warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom” so that all who heard it would reach maturity in Christ. His heart is that the church would be “knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ.”
Paul was saved for this ministry, for this task. Jesus Christ swept Paul up while he was on his way to persecute Christians, and he did it because Paul was his chosen instrument for this task.
What about us? What were we saved for? I confess that I all too often feel like I was saved because God could see how important it is for me to rest in my own comfort. But He did not save me just so I could pat myself on the back and call it good. Just as he had a purpose for Paul’s life, he has a purpose for my life. He has a purpose for your life.
God has a task for you to do. Have you thought about what it is? Have you prayed and asked God what it is that he wants you to do for his kingdom? Are you listening for his answer?
Everyone has these tasks: to tell others about Jesus, to be holy, being in fellowship with Him by reading God’s Word and praying
Maybe you also have these tasks: godly wife, faithful parent, deacon, teacher, global worker
- Are you working at it? Are you doing the work God has called you to?
- Are you concerned that the Word of God will be fully known by all, the mystery of Christ in us?
- Are you willing to take seriously the task to warn everyone and teach everyone with all wisdom?
- Do you have a deep desire to see the church knit together in love, understanding the fullness of the Word of God and reaching maturity?
- Are you doing the ministry that God has reserved for you to do?
God calls us to get our hands dirty on behalf of the church, in order to see the church prosper.
If we read one verse further in the account of Paul’s conversion, we come across a fascinating statement.
Acts 9:16 “For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
Paul’s conversion and commission was weighty. It didn’t promise riches and glory. Instead, it promised suffering. So who in their right mind would sign up for that? Paul did, obviously. He did it because he was so captured by the greatness of Jesus that he was convinced it was worth it.
God delivered on his promise. Paul was indeed suffering. Remember Paul’s situation when he wrote this letter to the Colossians? He was bound up in chains, imprisoned in Rome. In question one from this week’s homework, we made a list of all of the ways that Paul suffered for the sake of the gospel – hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonment, riots, sleepless nights, hunger, being dishonored, being slandered, punished, and poor. There was no glamour here.
Yet what does Paul say? He rejoices in his sufferings! Why? Because his sufferings promote the gospel. His sufferings mean that the church is growing and the kingdom is advancing. He sees any suffering he experiences as well worth it so that people will know about Christ, and so that Christ will be glorified.
What about us? We already looked at the work God might be calling you and me to. Will we be faithful to carry out these tasks if we know there will be suffering involved? Because you know what God’s Word says to us? That there will be suffering if we follow Jesus.
But do you know what else the Bible says about suffering?
- God’s Word promises Christ in us. We have the promise of the presence and favor of our Lord.
- It promises the joy of the kingdom – of seeing God’s kingdom grow and mature, as the beautiful bride of Christ.
- It promises that suffering will make us more like Christ, as we obediently do as he asks of us. Suffering will allow us to love and worship him more.
- It promises that our suffering won’t be more than we can bear, because we will bear it with the glorious favor of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
I don’t know about you, but I need to preach these things to myself every moment of every day. Let’s not be so crippled by fear of what kinds of suffering might come our way that we miss out on the joyful task that God has set before us. Instead, let’s trust in Christ to meet our every need as we do his will.
Will you, like Paul, be faithful to whatever task He is calling you to?
If you don’t know what that task or tasks are, will you ask the Lord for wisdom and guidance?
Will you prepare yourself for any suffering that it might bring, by rooting yourself deeply in Christ?
Will you allow Him to make you strong and courageous enough to face suffering for his sake?