As we continue our summer series in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, this morning we have the opportunity to pause on one of the strangest and more confusing verses in the New Testament. And as initially shocking as this verse is, when we truly understand it, what God is saying through Paul can send our own spiritual lives to another level, like a rocket, or shock our discipleship into new life.
I’m speaking of course of Colossians 1:24. Did it strike you as odd when you heard it read earlier? “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 his body, that is, the church…”
Maybe you can relate to the times in my early life as a Christian when I’d trip over that verse. “Wait, wait, what do you mean, Paul, ‘what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions’? How could anything be lacking about that? All that he suffered? The cross? Didn’t he say ‘It is finished’? How could anything he did not be complete?” These are right and good questions, and I hope that as we understand it better, your life will be as revolutionized as mine was when it began to dawn on me what was going on in Colossians 1:24. It unlocks the deep, and the truly majestic.
The beginning to the answer is found at high noon in bright sun on a dusty road between Jerusalem and Damascus about 30 years or so before Paul wrote this letter. At that point, his name was Saul, and he was mad, and had his mind set on the murder of Jews who had come to believe in Jesus. But then… Acts 9:3-5. “Now as Saul went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.’”
One of last century’s greatest New Testament Scholars, F.F. Bruce says of this, “No single event, apart from the Christ-event itself, has proved so determinant a course for Christian history as the conversion and commissioning of Paul.”
It’s no wonder Luke includes a detailed account of it three times in Acts in chapters 9, 22, and 26. Acts covers 30 years or so of Christian history. Of all that could be said, the story of Paul’s conversion occurs three times.
It’s that important.
When you look at all the accounts of Paul’s conversion and the more details he provides in his various accounts, particularly in Acts 26, through his first interaction with Jesus you can see so many seeds that would become Paul’s theology in full flower. In other words, Paul got his theology first from the lips of the risen Jesus himself. His understanding of the resurrection, and themes of darkness and light, and the message of the forgiveness of sin and being sanctified by faith, all these centerpieces of Paul’s letters he got from his first conversation with Jesus.
I. The Body of Christ (vs. 24)
If you go back and reread Colossians 1:11-23, you’ll hear many echoes from the Damascus Road. And that’s where he got his initial understanding of the Body of Christ, of people who follow Christ being Christ’s actual body in the world.
I can just see him mulling over and trying to figure it out. “Jesus said I was persecuting him, but I wasn’t, I was persecuting people who followed him. I wasn’t attacking him, I was attacking them, but he said I was persecuting him … Does Jesus identify himself with his followers that much, so that if I’m doing something to them, I’m doing it to him? It’s almost like Jesus, whose body is not here, sees himself living through his followers, whose bodies are here, almost like they are his body. Oh, Oh, they are his body, and that means, that because I’m a follower of Jesus too, I’m his body. I’m in Christ, and Christ is in me. My body is his, actually.”
Paul’s dramatic conversion on the Damascus Road is where he got his theology of the church as the Body of Christ, and then he hammers on it and hammers out the implications in almost every letter he wrote, like in Ephesians 4 and Ephesians 1:22-23.
“God put all things under Jesus’ feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” He spends the better part of 1 Corinthians 12 on another aspect of what it means that Christians are the body of Christ, and concludes with this in verse 27: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”
So often we throw the term “Body of Christ” around in a way that is abstract and somewhat mystical, in a sort of hazy ‘all Christians everywhere’ sort of way. And while the magnitude of that is true, the body of Christ is all Christians everywhere, it is profoundly tangible, and not mystical at all. It means that, if we believe and follow Jesus, we are his corporeal presence on the planet now. We are his flesh.
Paul’s use of the language of “the Body of Christ” is profoundly NOT a metaphor, it is accurate language of a deep reality.
Christians are in fact and are called to be, the ongoing incarnation of the Incarnation. You and me, individually, and all other Christians, each one, are one of the key ways by which Jesus can still be seen in the world. While Christ our head is with his Father in heaven now, we, the body of Christ, are to put him on display in the world now.
Do you know this in the marrow of your bones?
Does this reality orient your decisions?
Does this fact impact your treatment of others, both Christian and non-Christian?
Does this truth enable you to rejoice in your own suffering?
It did for Paul and that’s what we’re seeing in Colossians 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.”
Let’s look at some of the key words briefly.
A) What sufferings?
You remember about Paul that he suffered a lot in fulfilling his vocation as the apostle to the Gentiles. It would be good to reread 2 Corinthians 11 to be reminded of his imprisonments (plural), the floggings and the 39 lashes five times, the beatings with rods three times, the being left for dead, the shipwrecks, the betrayals, the false accusations, the rejections, the attempts on his life, and his simple hard work as a way of life. And his reaction?
“I rejoice.” He surely didn’t seek this suffering, but he didn’t simply endure it, or tolerate it either. Rather his reaction is reminiscent of the early apostles in Acts 5:41 after being put in jail, who reacted by “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” Peter says in 1 Peter 4:12, “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”
There’s that language again of somehow participating in the sufferings of Jesus when we suffer, the same language Paul uses in Philippians 3:20 when he talks about “the fellowship of his suffering.” Knowing the deeper story underneath their suffering–that they were doing it with Jesus and Jesus was with them in it–led to joy. Talk about having a heavenly perspective.
B) “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”
Paul uses this phrase almost identically in Philippians 2. The church in Philippi had gathered some support for Paul and sent it to him by sending Epaphroditus to deliver it personally. Along the way, Epaphroditus almost died from sickness, but he recovered and delivered the gift to Paul. Epaphroditus completed their gift by actually presenting it to Paul.
Paul says in Philippians 2:30, “honor him, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.” The love of the Philippians was there for Paul, but it needed to expressed, presented, completed, by someone with skin on. Until the gift was delivered by a person, it remained incomplete.
So what Paul is saying here about the cross of Jesus is not that it’s efficacy is in question, but rather it’s presentation needs more deliverers.
We must be clear. Paul is not saying that somehow Jesus’ saving work on the cross was incomplete. When Jesus said, “It is finished,” he meant that through his death on the cross his atonement for the forgiveness of sins was complete, and that no other sacrifice was needed, and his suffering for our sin was done. Paul says himself in Romans 6:10, “For the death he died he died to sin, once for all” and the author of Hebrews tells us in 10:12 that “when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.” In the words of our liturgy, “[Jesus made on the cross], by his one offering of himself once offered a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, offering, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world…" Amen.
But that was 2,000 years ago, and then Jesus ascended into heaven.
After Jesus’ ascension, what is is lacking is the ongoing, incarnate, physical, tangible display of this self-sacrificial love of Jesus for the world, shown particularly in his willingness to suffer for people so everyone could know God’s love.
What is lacking is that the message of the love of Christ who suffers for the sake of our salvation is not known throughout the world, and can no longer be seen in Jesus’ actual physical presence himself.
So we share Jesus’ sufferings but for very different reasons. One Romanian pastor well acquainted with persecution put it memorably, “Christ’s cross was for propitiation, ours is for propagation.” (Joseph Tson)
John Piper clarifies this, “Christ suffered to accomplish salvation; we suffer to spread salvation. And our willingness to endure hardship for the good of others is a filling up of Christ’s afflictions because it extends them to others and makes them visible…. 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 the world and the people of your workplace … 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.”
In other words, Christ’s sufferings are not lacking in efficacy, but in representation–re–presenation–by his body now, you and me and us.
Brothers and sisters, let us not forget our dignity, and the tremendous invitation, lo even our magnificent vocation, to be the ongoing presence of Christ in the world, with his spirit living in us, so that he in all of his glory continues to be seen and known by those around us. Christianity is about following Jesus, yes —even more so—it’s about being Jesus, because it is him who lives in and through us for love’s sake.
2. The Rest of the Passage (verses 25-29)
Real quickly then, the rest of the passage.
In verse 25, So Paul is a servant of the church, the young body of Christ, with a particular mission among the Gentiles, which is his audience for this letter. God called him to this, so he understood he was to steward it well…. Why?
“To make the word of God fully known.” How? 1) through his proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ and 2) by being willing to suffer for their sake so that they could know how deep is the love of Christ. For Paul, making the word of God fully known was all about words AND deeds, speaking AND suffering.
Two times in verses 26-27 Paul speaks of this amazing message of Jesus as a mystery. In the New Testament, a mystery is not something that remains mysterious and cannot be known, rather it is something that was not known but has now been revealed so that it can be known. The invisible God has now been made visible, and this has now been made known and has now been made known to Gentiles, non-Jews. Up until Jesus, the Jews were the inheritors of God’s revelation, and now that inheritance is spreading out to non-Jews too, which is really good news, because the vast majority of the world is not Jewish.
Paul pushes it further. In verse 27, to the saints, that is believers in Jesus including Gentile believers in Jesus, this rich and glorious mystery has now been made clear. The Gentiles, too, can have Jesus living in them — to use Paul’s words, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
Paul talks about us being in Christ all the time, and this is one of the few times he talks about Christ being in us.
I’ve tried to come up with a good illustration for this, and I’m not happy yet, so help me think of a better one. It’s gardening season, so imagine yourself as a watering can, you know, a bucket with a long spout with holes in the end so that, well, you can water.
You’re a watering can, and it gives you great joy to water things, it’s what you were made to do.
So you get filled with water, and you water things, until you’re empty. You’re happy because you were used, but you want to be used again, so you need more water in you. And you get more water, and you get poured out, and you’re so happy because you were doing what you were made to, and that becomes your joyful life—being filled, having the water in you, being poured out so that the flowers and vegetables can grow, getting filled again, being poured out again. It’s your best life. It’s what you were made to do.
What’s the water in this story? Obviously it’s Jesus, by his spirit, living in you, and being poured for the sake of others.
Jesus, who in John 4 called himself the living water, said also in John 7, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”
Christ in You, the Hope of Glory
Ray Stedman puts it so well, “It is the greatest truth taught in the Bible, and yet it is the most seriously missing element in many churches today. Most Christians in our churches understand that Christ died for the forgiveness of their sins, but that is where most of them stop. Relatively few, it seems, ever go on to grasp the fact that Jesus died for them that he might live in them. It is not enough to know that Christ died in order that we might go to heaven. We are also to know, understand, and practice Christ actually living in us now! That is surely the most astounding truth in the Bible…”
It is an astounding truth: With Colossians 1:15-19 and the Cosmic Christ in view, that same Jesus is living in us so that he can work through us so that those around us can see with their own eyes what God’s love is like, so that Jesus is more fully known and that they might come to know him. Wow. Words fail.
I know that we’ve been heartsick about what’s going on our southern border, this week especially. Some pictures you can’t forget, and shouldn’t. Immigration and refugees are complex things, and I don’t understand it all, but I want to, so in October I’m leading a small group of people to El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico just across the border to see, to listen, and to try to understand it better so I can know how to redemptively respond, and do it.
From there we’ll go to Guatemala, to understand what the conditions are in that country that are driving people north at such tremendous risk, and to explore partnership with the body of Christ there about ways of being a Kingdom presence together at the root of the issue.
While in Guatemala, I’m especially excited to visit a very sacred space, oddly enough, the bedroom of a man named Stanley Rother. He is America’s unknown martyr, and his story is told well in Henri Nouwen’s book, “Love in a Fearful Land”
Stanley was a priest from Oklahoma and was willingly sent to a town called Santiago Atitlan to lead a mission church there, arriving in 1968 after the civil war in Guatemala was well underway. By the late 70s, anyone who was seen as potentially subversive to the government was regularly disappearing, which meant being tortured and killed, their bodies never to be found. Because Stanley’s life as a Christian was all about caring for the poor and serving the needy, he became viewed as a potential communist. He wasn’t, he was simply a Christian. In 1980, many associated with the church were disappearing around him, and late in that year he was informed that he was next.
He went back to Oklahoma for a season, though troubled because of his concern for his parish. He was profoundly moved by Jesus’ words in John 10:11, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” He didn’t want to die for his flock, but he was willing to, and when things cooled off a little bit he went back to Guatemala—to his people, to his parish, to his flock.
Some months later, gunmen indeed burst into the church, and found Stanley in his bedroom. The priests there had already agreed to their strategy if the unthinkable came to them: Don’t let them take you alive. Spare the people the torture of wondering whether we are dead or alive. Spare them the anguish of having to look for our bodies.
So the gunmen burst in, and Stanley said, “Kill me here! Don’t take me! Kill me here”. And they did, with two shots to the head.
Stanley’s bedroom was eventually converted into a chapel, a sacred space, because it is.
In a letter written about six months before his death, he wrote, “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger. Pray for us, that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people, that our presence among them will fortify them to endure these sufferings in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom of God.”
Friends, that is Colossians 1:24, in flesh. Stanley was Jesus in the flesh. His sufferings helped fill Christ’s sufferings by presenting Christ-like love to the world. By looking at Stanley’s life, the world knows more what Jesus is like.
Christ on Display
Now, most of us here will not be asked to witness to Christ like Stanley. Some here may. We never want to discount that as a real option for any of us.
But think about any way that you have incurred any sort of suffering for Christ’s sake.
Maybe it’s consternation, even ridicule, from co-workers because of your faith.
Maybe someone you love is ticked off at you because you’re trying to be Christ-like in your relationship with them.
Maybe it’s the heart-ache that comes from trying to raise your kids Christianly in toxic environments.
Maybe it’s the ache of loneliness because you’ve decided to obey God and wait for marriage.
Maybe it’s enduring scorn because of standing up for the right thing.
Maybe it’s the fear that comes from choosing fidelity to God’s call on your life.
Friends, if you’re enduring any hardship in any way because of your following Jesus, don’t merely endure it, or tolerate it, or bemoan it. Rather, like Paul, “rejoice.” Somehow you are putting Christ and Christ’s way and Christ’s worth on display for others to see, even if they don’t. You’re doing your job as witness. The reception by those around you is God’s business.
Peter gets the last word, in the context about how to endure suffering. 1 Peter 4:19 says, “Therefore let those who suffer according to God's will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.”
by Bill Haley, Sermon given on June 30, 2019
1. On “filling up" — antanaplēróō, properly, to fill, especially in lieu of (in place of); to off-set, filling up what is lacking (remaining). Antanaplēroō only occurs in Col. 1:24 where it refers to believers "filling up" the remaining sufferings of Christ – i.e. when Christians experience wrath from unbelievers who are really still persecuting Christ. That is, venting their rejection of Christ on His followers because they can no longer directly "pull Christ's beard or spit on His face." So they do the "next best thing”: persecute the people in whom Christ lives (cf. 1 Jn. 4:17).
2. Notice the word “rejoice” in verse 24: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.” The Calvary road is not a joyless road. It is a painful one, but it is a profoundly happy one.
3. The fact is, the word "afflictions" is never used in the scriptures to describe the death of Jesus. Afflictions are what Jesus went through before the cross from the opposition of the enemy, the devil, and from our Lord's willingness to make himself a servant to others and to minister to human needs. That was when he endured “afflictions." Major lan Thomas, used to put it very succinctly. He is a former British Army officer, and has made it his lifelong ministry to travel all over the world and teach this wonderful truth of "Christ in you, the hope of glory."
He had to be what he was, in order to do what he did!
He had to do what he did, in order that we might have what he is.
And we must have what he is, in order to be what he was.