Filling Up What Was Lacking In Christ's Afflictions
I have become increasingly impressed at the humility of the Apostle Paul. Not that I wasn't before, but as I continue to live in a world so overflowing with pride and self adulation, I find myself increasingly impressed with those who manage to consistently stay on task in their relationship with God- especially those who can do it with such poise and humility. Consider Paul's words in Colossians 1:24-27:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Colossian 1: 24-27 NASB)
On an initial reading some of this appears to be incredibly arrogant and self absorbed. However one has to press through these initial impressions of the text in order move beyond the supposed "arrogant" language and discover the incredible humility of Paul in walking out that singular purpose to which he has been called. Here are a few things that I have gleaned from this text (and these don't even begin to plumbs the depths of it).
The real difficultly with this text is locked up in one statement: "filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions." This alone appears at the outset to communicate "I am going to finish what Christ started" or "Christ's sufferings weren't the end- all, be- all, so I am going to make up for the difference". If we pin our interpretation of the text on such an understanding, we end up degrading the sacrifice of Christ and essentially put Paul on a pedestal (look at what Paul is doing); in addition we ultimately put "works based salvation" back on the table. I am completely convinced that Paul would have been aghast at such a reading and interpretation of his letter. So we are definitely left with the task of finding a reasonable interpretation that lines up with the rest of the canon of scripture and with other writings of the apostle Paul as well. So how do we then interpret this seemingly arrogant statement?
There are some phrases and hints in the text which are key to helping us interpret more accurately. Consider the very first phrase: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake". This phrase alone should give us a sense of the humility of Paul and of that singular purpose for which he lived and ultimately gave his life. The arrogant certainly don't rejoice in their own suffering. The arrogant would more likely be trying to minimize or remove all suffering from their lives all together. A simply definition of arrogance describes the individual demonstrating this type of behavior as someone who raises themselves above all others. An arrogant person would attempt to put the suffering on another. Suffering is not something that stays long on the radar of this type of person. Yet Paul rejoices in his sufferings for them. He suffers and rejoices in it because it is for the gain of the church and it honors Jesus. We also know from looking at Philippians 3 that Paul is not arrogant despite having a second to none type of resume. Consider his words in Philippians 3:
If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Phil 3:4b- 11 NASB)
His credentials are clearly not even remotely questionable and yet by his own words he declares "those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ." Now we are getting somewhere. For Paul everything was for the cause of Christ. Paul was from the quintessential Pharisaical background. He knew what it was to follow a rabbi. I am not sure if during the persecution of the early church he was still a disciple of Gamaliel, however when Paul came to salvation on the road to Damascus, his loyalties changed. His Rabbi changed. Christ became his new teacher and master.
Back to the Colossians passage. So how does all of the previous paragraph help in understanding this difficult sentence about "filling up what was lacking in Christ's afflictions"? With the passage from Philippians in mind, I would argue that for Paul everything he did was to be like his master- to walk in the same way his master walked. Now many of us have heard of this supposed blessing "may you be covered in the dust of your rabbi." I have recently come across some information that seems to indicate that this picture of disciples running after their rabbis and being covered in the dirt and dust from their feet is erroneous. It appears that a more accurate interpretation is that of a disciple sitting at the feet of a rabbi or important dignitary embracing all of the wisdom and knowledge that they could learn from that individual. Personally I am not concerned over which is correct or if both are erroneous, because from a practical stand point it still makes my point clear. Paul humbled himself as the least of the disciples of Christ and was determined in every way to be like Jesus.
Here are some of the things that Paul saw in Jesus that he attempted to humbly emulate: Jesus came to make known the Father and the plan of salvation. Paul on his conversion immediately began to make known the same thing- even noting that the blood of no one would be on his hands because he made known the gospel to everyone. Wow... what humble and dedicated servant and disciple. Secondly, Jesus was mocked, questioned, shunned, beaten, hauled before authorities and was given farcical trial lacking all justice. Now I am going to suggest that Paul wasn't a sadomasochist. He was not looking to (as we say in our 21st century vernacular) be a "martyr"; however if that was what it took- he would take it on with all humility and joy. His desire to was serve Jesus and be conformed to His image in all ways. He wanted to be like Jesus in all respects: destiny, character, knowledge of God. This being said, He knew that he could never make it- but he was willing to humbly do whatever took to honor his master and Lord to most of his ability. "Filling up all that was lacking in Christ's afflictions" then was not about something lacking in what Christ did, rather it was about what was lacking in his own life to be like Christ in all respects.
This is real humility. A humility that was characterized by realizing that he could never fill up all of it. He could never be like Christ in all respects, but out of love for his Lord we would go as far as he could in service even to the losing of his own life. This is a humility that challenges my walk with God. How about you?
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