Following the salutation and opening thanksgiving in vv. 1-14, we have read Paul’s great Christology in vv. 15-20 and a recollection of God’s work of grace in the lives of these Colossian believers. He didn’t know these people personally but he knew enough of their history to remind them of it. So after considering Christ and the Colossian Christians Paul now turns to himself, having introduced himself as a subject in the last few words of the previous paragraph. Paul shifts from the spiritual standing of the Colossians themselves to his own ministry.
“Already the nature of Paul’s appeal to the Colossians is taking shape. It is a plea for continuance in the truth of the apostolic gospel. In a word, it is a demand for loyalty. But loyalty to Paul’s gospel cannot be separated from loyalty to himself, and his apostolic office. This is the explanation for the magnificent section before us. In it the Colossians are invited to examine the apostle’s calling, the shape of his ministry and the aims he felt compelled to pursue, as well as to recognize the genuine signs of God at work in the man himself.” [Lucas, 66]
We’ll come back to this remarkable statement in a few minutes.
“Mystery” in Pauline usage refers to that which would not be known or understood apart from divine revelation. Here the idea is that the great salvation of God, revealed and accomplished in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, has embraced the Gentile world on equal footing with the Jews, indeed, that it would become primarily the experience of the Gentile world. As you may remember, Colossians as a letter bears striking similarity to Ephesians. They were written at nearly the same time apparently and there are many verbal and conceptual parallels between the two. Indeed, no two letters of the NT, are as similar to one another as Ephesians and Colossians. Well in Eph. 3:6 we read:
“…this mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.”
There are, to be sure, throughout the OT prophesies of the salvation of the peoples of the world and how all nations of the world would be blessed through the seed of Abraham. But no one was expecting it to happen as it did: the Jews rejecting their Messiah, the gospel turning outward to the world at Pentecost, the Gentile mission soon eclipsing the progress of the gospel within the Jewish world itself and then the worldwide expansion of the church making it an almost exclusively Gentile affair, with only the odd Jewish Christian here or there, and that the preaching of the gospel would create a Gentile church without some of the most distinctive features of Jewish life and piety (circumcision, laws of clean and unclean food, the Saturday Sabbath, the annual feasts, and so on). No Jew at the beginning of the first century of the Christian era was expecting that there would be great congregations of Gentiles all over the Mediterranean world worshipping the God of Abraham, celebrating the appearance of the Messiah, and ordering their lives according to the Ten Commandments, but without circumcision and the other most distinctive marks of Jewish piety. They thought that Gentiles, to know God, would have to become Jews! This was a mystery, a thing otherwise unknown and unexpected until it happened.
But, of course the mystery is not simply the full inclusion of the Gentiles, but the nature of that salvation itself: our incorporation into Christ and his indwelling in us by his Holy Spirit.
The term “everyone” occurs three times in v. 28, emphasizing the universality of the gospel and contrasting that with the intellectual or spiritual exclusiveness or elitism of the false teachers. [O’Brien, 88] Without even mentioning them, Paul is undermining their viewpoint as he has been doing from the beginning of the letter.
It is possible, though can’t be proved, that the false teachers held out the promise of perfection or spiritual wholeness to those who embraced their new way. If so Paul is making a point of saying that such maturity is for every Christian and that it was always the object of the apostolic ministry. Christianity sets before its adherents both the goal of perfection toward which they are to strive — “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect”; we are to aspire to nothing less than Godlikeness — and the promise of perfection, when we will be like the Lord Jesus because we will see him as he is. No one who is looking forward to that day is content to live sinfully now; rather, as John says in the very next sentence, “Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure.” [1 Jn. 3:3]
With most men this would be boasting. With Paul it is a necessary explanation for the remarkable life he lived. It was the Lord working in him.
Up to this point Paul had been speaking generally. Now he turns to his interest in these particular Christians and addresses them personally. Basically Paul applies what he has just said about his ministry to the case of these believers. It is not only for those whom Paul has met face to face that he struggles to present them mature in Christ.
Here the mystery is Christ himself in whom everything valuable is hidden. The meaning of all things, the true way of life, the destiny of every human being, and the hope of a glorious future, all of this has been revealed to them in Jesus Christ. The sub-text of this remark is that there is nothing beyond or outside of Christ that these Colossian Christians must know.
For the first time in the letter Paul makes a more explicit reference to the problem that has prompted his writing to the church.
If Paul could he would be present in Colossae to deal with this menacing situation, but he is imprisoned in Rome and cannot come. But, though absent in body, he is present in spirit, and he is rejoicing over what Epaphras had told him of the congregation and their faith and life. There may be dangers but the church was still sound. Paul is writing to keep it that way!
Verse 24 of chapter 1 is perhaps, the most difficult statement in the letter to interpret. What does Paul mean when he says,
“…in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is the church…”?
It’s a daring way to speak, to suggest that something is lacking in Christ! He couldn’t mean that Christ’s sufferings were insufficient to save his people. That would contradict far too many plain statements in Paul’s writings and the rest of the Bible. Indeed, in both 1:19-20 and later in 2:13-15 Paul makes it clear that Christ on the cross saved his people to the uttermost, eternally reconciled them to God, and laid their enemies in the dust. It should be mentioned that Catholic writers have referred to this verse in defense of their doctrine of the treasury of the saints and indulgences: that is, the saints accumulating a surplus of merit that the pope can then dispense for the alleviation of the punishment of souls in purgatory. [Clark, 59] But that, surely, is an idea so utterly alien to Paul’s thought that everyone should have known better.
What Paul seems to be saying — and the point is made elsewhere in the New Testament as well — is that as a servant of Christ he shares and he must share in the suffering that is required to bring in the kingdom of God. For Christ that included supremely the suffering of the cross. We do not share that suffering, to be sure. But that is not all that Christ suffers. Christ suffers as the church suffers, as his people suffer. That is a doctrine of the OT testament as well, if you remember. You remember that great assurance given to the people of God in Isaiah 63:7:
“In all their affliction he — that is Yahweh — was afflicted…”
God does not look upon the suffering of his people with indifference. He feels our woe and our pain. And in the New Testament it is the same. Remember what the exalted Christ asked Paul at their first encounter on the road to Damascus: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” [Acts 9:4] Paul wasn’t persecuting Jesus, or at least he didn’t think he was. He was persecuting Christians. But Jesus said that it was effectively the persecution of him! Christ suffers when his people suffer. But that is so in particular when they are suffering for his sake, for the sake of his church — which is his own body — and for the extension of his kingdom in the world. So Paul’s sufferings for the church — to build it by missionary labors often dangerous and difficult and to protect it from dangers within and without which we learn from Paul’s letters was an unrelenting demand — was suffering Christ himself felt and was suffering on Christ’s behalf, an extension of his work in the world.
There is another thought here as well. Paul says that he is “filling up what is lacking…” This too is an idea that we find elsewhere in the New Testament, viz. that there is a pre-determined, a predestined measure of suffering that the church must endure before the kingdom can be brought in. Think of Rev. 6:9-11:
“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’ Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants and brothers and sisters were killed just as they had been.”
You have this teaching in various forms in the NT, that there must be tribulation and suffering on the part of the people of God and that the Lord will not return until the full measure of that suffering has been completed. Suffering for Christ is part of how the church hastens the coming of her Lord. [cf. Moo, 151-153] There is no other way to spiritual maturity, and so spiritual fruitfulness, than suffering — that was true even for our Savior, who was made perfect or mature, we are told in Hebrews, from what he suffered.
Such was Paul’s life and, to a lesser degree and with less consequence to be sure, such is ours as Christians. Some years ago, John Piper, the Minneapolis pastor, published a book that was an encouragement to many: Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. Piper’s thesis, as you will remember if you read the book, was that Christians should do what they do, seek to love and serve the Lord, with the express intention of increasing their happiness. Joy ought to be intentionally sought because it is the promise of the gospel and of communion with God in Christ. “Hedonist” usually has a negative sense, so its place in the title of the book was provocative. It drew attention to the author’s message, and peaked peoples curiosity. We are to be seekers after joy and pleasure, so Christian hedonists.
Well, in the same way, we might speak here of Paul’s book: Desiring Pain: Meditations of a Christian Masochist. Masochism, like hedonism, is in almost all its uses a pejorative term. It describes someone either pathetic or genuinely sick. What healthy person seeks his own pain? Yet here is Paul saying:
“I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake…”
He seems positively enthusiastic about filling up in his flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions… Now, to be sure, Paul was not a masochist in the ordinary sense of the term. His was not a desire for pain for pain’s sake. His rejoicing in suffering was not masochism any more than a soldier falling on a grenade to save his buddies is suicide. The purpose, the context of an act or a statement determines its meaning. But calling Paul a masochist makes us think!
Paul did embrace the pain of his life and there was a great deal of pain in his life: pain of body and pain of heart; much more of the latter than the former, no doubt. There was the suffering of exhaustion, the suffering of separation, the suffering of acute disappointment – think , for example, of the suffering of the desertion of friends; the failure to gain a hearing or much of one in one place or another; the suffering of frustration or boredom as he sat in prison for months on end; the suffering of beatings — Paul speaks in 2 Cor. 12 of his “countless” beatings and of the five times he was given thirty-nine lashes by Jews who were infuriated because of his preaching Christ (once he was stoned) – the suffering of shipwreck and the threat of death at the hands of an executioner, which proved at the last to be his fate. All of this because Paul was Christ’s servant and the church’s servant and the gospel’s servant. “Woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel,” Paul said, but “Woe is me if I do,” proved also to be true.
But Paul’s perspective on his hard life, full of struggle and hardship of every kind as it proved to be once he became a follower and servant of Christ, was that it was his calling to suffer in this way; and not his calling only, but his privilege. To share in the sufferings of Christ is the noblest thing a mere human being can ever do! To enter into and share the experience of the Son of God in pain and sorrow and struggle for the salvation of the world and the building up of the saints is not only to serve Christ, but to serve him by becoming like him! “Imitation,” we say, “is the sincerest form of flattery” and when you suffer for Christ and his cause, you become like him in the most profound way.
Now what we must be very careful not to do is to turn Paul’s statement here into a mere platitude, some sort of formulaic confession such as Christians and Christian ministers are supposed to make. Paul is not trivializing his pain, sorrow, or struggle when he wrote of rejoicing in what he has suffered. His was a hard life and his pain and struggle were real. We are not to imagine that he smiled his way through the stoning or whippings he endured. I guarantee you that the Jews who gave him thirty-nine lashes five times knew what they were about and by the thirty-ninth lash Paul was either whimpering or he was unconscious. I’m sure he did not smile at the deep disappointments caused by the betrayal of erstwhile friends, Did he lose his wife when he became a follower of Christ? He once said that he had suffered the loss of all things. If he did lose his wife because of his conversion to Christ, that must have been a burden all his life long. Did he ever see her again? Who’s to say? But when Demas left him that must have been a kick in the gut. He must have nearly gone stir crazy as he whiled away two years in a Caesarean jail. You know the Apostle Paul. He would have been pacing that cell almost unable to bear the fact that there was so much to do and here he was unable to do anything. We have in Paul’s own letters evidence of how sharply Paul felt both the inner sorrow and the physical pain of his life as the Lord’s apostle. Paul’s statement is no platitude, He rejoiced in his afflictions because of what they contributed to the cause of Jesus Christ in the world. Christ went to the cross, we read in Hebrews, for the joy set before him, but we do not see him smiling on the cross; it was pure agony.
I want you to think about this as your own calling and your own privilege and to find the joy — not the grin, not the levity, but the deep sense of happiness that comes from being right, from pleasing the Lord, and from fulfilling the purpose of your life in the expectation of perfect pleasure to come – in the troubles of your life.
But first we must clarify the nature of these sufferings. You might think that many of your disappointments and your struggles don’t qualify as those afflictions in which you can rejoice. What if you are sick or one of your children is sick? What if your marriage is a great disappointment to you? What if you have lost your job? What if some of your suffering is the fruit of your own sin? How do these afflictions and others like them contribute to “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the church?”
But they do. Every one of them does because they contribute to your maturity in Christ and there is nothing the kingdom of God and the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ needs more than maturity.
There was a series of articles in a recent Christianity Today devoted to the problem of the juvenile American church. They had five or six different individuals speak to the question of the juvenile nature of American Christianity. Some of what they had to say was useful and valuable, but the most important observation I took away from that collection of opinion pieces, given the fact that it was Christianity Today, which is determined to see both sides of every question, was that not a one of the writers thought that it wasn’t a real problem – that the American church is so childlike and childish in its worship, in its consideration of the summons, the calling of the Christian life and on and on. Everybody admits this is our problem. We are living as Christians as if we were children and not adults. When God disciplines you for sins you have committed, we read in Hebrews 12 that he is perfecting you, he is maturing you. You are not going to get to maturity in any other way than by the discipline of your heavenly Father. Just like your children will not get to maturity without your disciplining of them when they misbehave. What your pain and sorrow contribute to is your maturity in Christ. You are the proof of the gospel; you are the presence of Christ in the world. When you bear your sufferings with Christian grace and joy, when you honor God in the midst of them — blessing the one who has given and taken away — you are bringing in the kingdom of God in one of the most powerful ways in which it can be brought in. The world does not need anything so much as it needs mature Christians proving the gospel to it with the grace of their lives, and when they are afflicted and remain Christ-like, they are the more visibly the presence of Christ in this world, who bore his many afflictions — every sort of affliction — with grace, with patience, and with a view to higher and eternal things. The world needs this and the church needs this to become more and more her true self.
You remember how C.S. Lewis so memorably made this point in his Screwtape Letters. The senior devil, Screwtape writes to Wormwood, a junior devil, whom Screwtape is schooling in his work as a tempter of human beings:
“Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he was been forsaken, and still obeys.”
But that isn’t our goal: just to obey, to give God the obedience of brutes. Our goal is the higher thing: to recognize the goodness in our suffering and to rejoice in it for those far deeper reasons. No Christian makes a great impression on others for being happy and good when his or her life is blessed in every way: a good marriage, a happy home, healthy children, a good job, a large measure of this world’s goods. But let a man or woman retain a Christian character, a cheerful spirit, a sense of holy purpose, a heart of gratitude when enduring great troubles, and his or her life becomes a window on the unseen world, an invisible but present Christ, and the power of divine grace to make God’s salvation visible in an ordinary human life. “How does she do that?” the world is forced to ask; “How can he have such an attitude when so much has happened in his life?
Stop and think about this. The Bible is chock full of suffering and affliction. I noticed this morning, thinking about this evening’s sermon, that in virtually every hymn we sang this morning in worship, and we sang just a typical selection of hymns, there was some reference to the trials and afflictions of a Christian’s life. There is not a significant figure in biblical history who is not a man and woman of sorrow and trouble. More than half of the 150 psalms in the biblical Psalter are prayers of men in time of trouble. And again and again we are taught, in the OT and NT alike, that suffering will be and must be our lot if we are faithfully to follow Jesus in this world. In a world of sin and death, in the Devil’s world, true holiness attracts trouble like moths to light. No affliction, no real spiritual maturity: that’s the law! Or as A.W. Tozer put it, God cannot bless a man greatly unless he hurts him greatly.
We forget this every day, but there is hardly anything more important to remember. Here is Lewis again:
“The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own’ or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life — the life God is sending one day by day: what one calls one’s ‘real’ life is a phantom of one’s own imagination. This at least is what I see at moments of insight; but it’s hard to remember it all the time.” [Letters to Arthur Greeves, 499]
Jesus Christ, our Savior and our Lord, was a man of sorrows. Why? Because suffering was necessary for the salvation of the world. And it continues to be necessary, even after the great suffering was done. Well, you and I are in Christ. We are, in a very real way, the Bible says, living his life, for him, to accomplish his purposes in the world and, therefore, as he had to suffer we must as well. There is and there can be no maturity in Christ that is not nurtured in the fires of affliction. Once again, if the perfect man had to suffer to become mature, how much more must that be true of you and me!
Your own flesh, the Devil, and the culture round about you are always pushing you to live in ways that are untrue to your real self in Christ. But no one who understands what it means to be in Christ would ever think either that he or she can live without suffering, real suffering, or that he could, she could fulfill the purpose of a Christian life without sorrow, pain, and deep disappointment. This world is a vale of tears in some part because God’s precious children need it to be for them to become what they genuinely want to become as followers of Jesus Christ.
Take suffering out of our lives and you take with it 1) the hope of real spiritual maturity — our deepest sensibilities, our deepest insights into the truth, our deepest convictions have all been distilled in the deep waters of life – 2) you take away real Christ-likeness — who was, as I said, the man of sorrows precisely because he was a righteous man and a loving man and a man who gave himself for others – 3) and you take away real usefulness — for in a world of great sorrow and constant trouble, what use is someone who knows nothing of and cannot apply his faith to the defining experiences of life. What is clear is that Paul understood this so well that the experience of suffering and trial for him was nothing less than the fulfillment of his life and his calling; he didn’t regret it, he welcomed it; it was his true self coming into its own.
To be a Christian at all, to walk with Christ, to grow in Christ, to serve the interests of the gospel, the church, and the kingdom of God is to be someone who suffers pain and disappointment. a sufferer. It is not possible that it should not be so. So for Paul, to suffer as a Christian, and to suffer in a Christian way, and to suffer for the sake of Christ and others, I say, to suffer in such a way is to be and do what a true follower of Jesus desires to be and do. That is why he rejoices in his afflictions. They are the overflow of Christ’s presence in his life, of Christ’s purpose in his life, and they are the way to the fulfillment of that hope of glory of which Paul speaks here.
No, we are tempted to think we would prefer a life without disappointment, without pain, without heartbreak, without weariness, without frustration. But such would not be a Christian life and it certainly would not be a mature and fruitful life. You would not be filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the church.
And think of this. Bearing suffering with Christian grace and faith, welcoming it into your life in that deeper sense as the Lord’s instrument for everything holy and useful and fruitful in your life as his follower – all of this can be done but once and for a short time. In heaven there will be no sorrows to bear, no frustrations patiently to endure, no persecution to wrap around yourself as a badge of honor, the proof of your loyalty to the Lord Christ. In eternity to come you can worship God and rejoice in his love; you can enjoy with perfect freedom the fellowship of the saints, you can keep the commandments of God, every one perfectly from your heart. But only in this brief life in this world can you suffer for Jesus’ sake. The “hope of glory” elevates Christian suffering far above the mere sorrow or pain or disappointment that might be suffered by unbelievers who also must experience the shocks of life. We cannot possibly think about our troubles in the same way when we remember how temporary they are and how short the time in which to use them and endure them and sanctify them for the glory of Christ.
We live in a world in which people and especially young people will say straightaway to a survey taker that they hope for an easy and comfortable life. Don’t you ever say that to a survey taker! You tell him that you want a difficult life because you want your life to count for Jesus Christ and some measure of suffering is essential to that. The hard work of life is increasingly less welcome to young adults in our culture. As the years have passed the number of a American college freshmen who think it important to develop a meaningful philosophy of life has fallen steeply, dropped by more than half, and the number of freshmen who think being financially well off is very important has climbed just as steeply, more than doubled the last few decades. Among those same people a dramatic fall, has also been charted in the number who think that fathers and mothers should spend more time with their children — hard work as that can be, wearying work, frustrating work as it will and must be. People don’t want hardship; they want ease, pleasure, and fun, at the least possible cost. No wonder we are a nation in debt! The easiest way to get money and the things money can buy is to borrow!
Not for us, brothers and sisters. I want us to be a suffering people because otherwise we cannot be mature in Christ and we cannot live truly useful lives for the church and the kingdom of our Lord. Without suffering we can live only half a Christian life if that. We don’t have to go looking for suffering, of course, there will be enough of it to serve every holy purpose. We have only to have Paul’s attitude about it when it comes and to give it back to God in faith, hope, and love. Be sure that you are getting every last drop of holiness from every tribulation and affliction you face.
From prayer that asks that I may be
Sheltered from winds that beat on Thee,
From fearing when I should aspire,
From faltering when I should climb higher,
From silken self, O Captain, free
Thy soldier who would follow Thee.
From subtle love of softening things,
From easy choices, weakenings,
(Not thus are spirits fortified,
Not this way when the Crucified)
From all that dims Thy Calvary
O Lamb of God, deliver me.
Now take to heart Paul’s magnificent vision of the Christian life and experience of life. Think of your present sorrows — what have you been thinking about as I have talking about the afflictions, the troubles, and the disappointments of your life, what has sprung to mind? — think of those things — and consider those likely to come and say to yourself that you too will fill up, and rejoice to fill up, what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, his church, that you will become that mature man or woman in Christ, and come to experience as only suffering saints can, the riches of a deepening Christian life and communion with God and an ever stronger hope of God’s glory.