“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 —
What does Colossians 1:24 mean? Initially, it sounds like he is diminishing the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. But is he? Surely not!?!
Stripped from its context, Paul’s words make Christ’s atonement sound incomplete and deficient. Or at least they give credence to some brand of works-based theology that finds merit in the works of the saints. But I would contend that such an interpretation is too hasty, and not at all what Paul is intending.
This past weekend, I had the privilege and the challenge of preaching Colossians 1:24 at Kenwood Baptist Church, where I labored to explain what Paul meant that in his flesh he, and by extension we, must fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. Below are some of my observations and interpretations that helped me understand this “hard text.” Tomorrow, I will provide my final answer.
(From the beginning, I gladly admit that I found much interpretive assistance from the commentaries of Peter O’Brien and Douglas Moo, but most of all I was helped by John Piper’s chapter on “Suffering” in Desiring God).
Four Preliminary Observations
1. Paul’s suffered because of God’s mercy.
In fact, his suffering flows out of the mercy and grace of God spoken of in the previous verses. Verses 21–23 highlight the mercy of God in reconciling sinners through the death of Jesus Christ. At the end of verse 23, Paul says that he has become a minister of this gospel hope. Then in verse 24, he launches off into speaking about his ministry and its suffering. So it seems that Paul is impassioned by the mercy of God to suffer for Christ and for his church. This same kind of logic is found in Romans 9:1-6, where after declaring for eight chapters the mercies of God, he passionately suggests forfeiture of his own salvation if only he could bring salvation to his brethren. Suffering is not and cannot be disconnected from mercy. Without mercy, suffering has no power. In the daily mercies and comfort of God, saints find renewed endurance and reasons for suffering well.
2. Paul’s suffered with Christ.
Verse 24 says that Paul is filling up “Christ’s afflictions.” Some translators and commentators, have tried to escape the problem of this verse by saying that the afflictions are Paul’s, not Christ’s. This would mean that Paul is suffering and he is doing so for Christ, but that in no way is Paul’s suffering effecting concerning Christ’s work. But the grammar does not allow for that interpretation.
So Paul’s sufferings are coterminous with Christ’s, that is they extend to the same boundary as Jesus’ afflictions. This makes sense, in that when Paul was himself was persecuting the church, Jesus confronted him and asked, “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:6). Jesus Christ, raised from the dead is unified with his church, and resultantly, when the church suffers, Christ suffers. So Paul is saying that he suffers with Christ. This idea is made explicit in Philippians 3:10, when he says, “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” There is a fellowship in the sufferings of Christ. So when Paul suffers in the flesh, Christ suffers, and thus the apostle suffers with Christ.
3. Paul suffered for/on behalf of the church.
His sufferings are not self-absorbed or introspective. He sees them as being done for those who he loves, the bride of Christ. In this way, he sees his sufferings as a benefit to the church, in Colossae and everywhere else. This idea is seen here and again in Colossians 1:29–2:1 (cf. 2 Tim. 1:8ff). This leads to a fourth observation.
4. Paul’s suffered for the expansion of the gospel.
This whole section is filled with language that depicts the gospel of Christ going forward. And Paul rejoices in his sufferings because he sees the gospel going out. Letting Scripture illuminate Scripture, Paul’s self-effacing, gospel-promoting attitude can be seen also in the letter to the Philippians when he speaks of the brothers who are proclaiming the gospel looking to do him harm (cf. Phil. 1:15–18). Apparently, while in prison, there are some gospel evangelists who see their proclamation as doing injury to Paul and they are glad. Paul’s response is simply amazing as he is rejoices that the name of Jesus is going further and further–at personal expense to his name and ministry.
Putting this all together we see the context of Paul’s suffering in the light of ministry and not mediation; with Christ and not for Christ; and for the sake of gospel proclamation, not for any kind of further merit or propitious enhancement. In other words, before getting to the text, the context tells us that’s Paul’s suffering is not securing salvation, it is proclaiming the sure salvation that has already been accomplished.
Two Interpretive Boundaries
When we compare this passage to others in Colossians and throughout the NT, we see there are a few other interpretive boundaries that guard us from making theological error.
1. Paul’s theology disallows a diminished atonement.
Paul is not saying that Jesus work on the cross is deficient. On the contrary, his doctrine of salvation is consistent, and it always elevates the singular nature of Christ’s atoning death (see his arguments in Romans 5, 8; Galatians 3–4). In Colossians, Paul makes it plain that the work of Christ is absolutely sufficient (and necessary) for salvation (cf. Colossians 1:12-14. 1:15–20. 2:13–15). Summarizing his points, when Christ died on the cross, it was finished, full atonement had been made. This is Paul’s message of the cross and the plenary message of the New Testament (cf. John 19:30; Hebrews 9–10).
2. Paul’s language presents an interpretive boundary.
The term “afflictions” used by Paul in verse 24 is nowhere used of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross. Jesus is accursed on the cross, sheds his blood, is crucified, and is put to death, but he is not “afflicted” on the cross. It is rather the kind of language that the community that follows Jesus should regularly anticipate. Tribulations, trials, hardships, and sufferings are the lot of the Messianic community. In keeping with the eschatological nature of church, the “Messianic woes” have been passed the followers of Jesus, and they should expect to be afflicted on behalf of the one they follow. This is why Jesus said that all who follow him must pick up the cross daily. The call to follow Christ is a call to die (Deitrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship). The kind of affliction that Paul is referencing here is more fully developed in 2 Corinthians 1:3–8, which speak of the afflictions of ministry and gospel service.
For more reflections on this passage, see Part 2 of this post.
Sola Deo Gloria, ds