Rejoicing in sufferings
Completing what is lacking
1. The suffering of Christ and the suffering of the Church
2. Sharing suffering with Christ
3. The suffering and the glory
4. The necessity of suffering
5. Completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the Church
6. Defeating God’s enemies through suffering
Having continued in one, long sentence from the start of Col 1:9 to the conclusion of Col 1:23, Paul now stops for a much needed breath! Whether there was a pause here or whether the one who was having the letter dictated to him merely noted the relevance of a new sentence and so chose one is impossible to say, but the change of tack in the letter shows that Paul has consciously decided to develop his pronouncement (Col 1:23) that he
‘...became a minister’
Most commentators see this next section to run from Col 1:24 to Col 2:5 before the apostle embarks on the main reason for his writing to the fellowship from Col 2:6 onwards but it’s left to Colwright to observe that these verses naturally fall into two sections. The first dealing with Paul’s unique ministry worldwide (Col 1:24-29) before he goes on to show how it relates directly into the lives of the recipients of his letter (Col 2:1-5).
There are overlaps here, however, and the demarcation isn’t as clear cut as one would have liked - for instance, he relates his ministry to the Colossians in Col 1:25 (my italics) where he speaks of his function within the Body being given
‘...to me for you...’
and can’t help but note that the mystery of the Gospel (Col 1:27 - my italics) is
‘...Christ in you...’
rather than it being a vague reference to believers in general which a broader overview would have required (see also Col 1:24). Even though Paul will press home the relevancy of his ministry towards the Colossian believers from Col 2:1, he still finds it important to note that his calling to serve Christ must have a consequential outworking to them as part of the whole body of followers of the Way.
Colwright also observes that the sequence of information follows closely on that of the previous section which has seen the mention of the new creation in Christ come first as of prime importance (Col 1:15-20) before it’s application to the believers is mentioned (Col 1:21-23).
For Paul, then, all things originate in both the Father and Son and it’s only His initiative which brings reason and application to mankind. We shouldn’t forget this for, in a world where believers speak ever increasingly about being active to see God move, Paul’s sight is firmly fixed above from where everything begins that’s of any real consequence.
It’s not easy to see clear cut divisions in these opening six verses (Col 1:24-29) but Col 1:24 seems to stand alone and has something relevant to say to the Church about suffering. The reader should also access my notes in the Miscellaneous section of the web site on ‘Suffering’ which have been consulted in putting these notes together. That there’s a purpose to suffering for the believer is sure from many Scriptures in the NT but the believer is more likely to step across to the other side of the road to avoid it if they see it coming directly down the street to shake them by the hand.
Rejoicing in sufferings
One can’t help but wonder whether Paul wasn’t, on occasions, considered to be unhinged by those around him. I say that not in a critical manner but in a purely natural way for new converts who’d, perhaps, come to know Jesus as the liberator of their bondage and demonic influence would surely look to Him to deliver them out of everything which hindered them and would expect him to cause His followers to pursue victory after victory as they followed after the will of God for their lives.
The God who created all things, was in control of all things and who worked in all things to bring about the purpose of His will (Eph 1:11) could hardly have been logically expected to allow His servants to participate in any measure of suffering seeing as all that was needed for their salvation had been taken upon Himself on the cross by Jesus.
But suffering was exactly what the believers experienced in nearly every location in which they found themselves and the promise of a returning, victorious King who would set up an unopposable Kingdom throughout the universe must have seemed like a fairy tale to some when they encountered hatred from those who, until very recently, had been their friends.
Something of the reality of Paul’s commands in the letters of the NT can be seen in the story of Paul and Silas’ incarceration in the Roman city of Philippi (Acts 16:11-40). When the pair were dragged before the magistrates (something which would have grazed and cut their bodies as the place of the judicial hearing was in the stone paved agora - which still remains fairly complete in modern day Greece) and beaten following an accusation from the city folk (Acts 16:19-22), they were dispatched into the local prison where they were securely fastened in stocks - a situation which was as far from five star accommodation as one can get. FCS (volume 4 page 264) observes that the jailer’s subsequent cry as to what he had to do to be saved (Acts 16:30)
‘...adds conviction to the view that the jailer had not simply kept the apostles but had in fact abused them...Such religious terror reflects his perception that his abuses had aroused the ire of the apostles’ God’
He also notes with some humour that, prior to the earthquake which tore through the prison, the relations between the jailer and his prisoners
‘...were not cordial’
and that both the securing of them into the inner prison and their incarceration into the stocks (Acts 16:24)
‘...may be considered punitive, the expression of official hostility. So too might the jailer’s disregard for their severe injuries and their need for physical sustenance’
this last observation being a logical consequence of the jailer’s later response of washing their wounds (Acts 16:33) and of bringing food before them that they might eat (Acts 16:34). We might, therefore, have expected Paul and Silas to have been just a little down as night falls as they see no prospect of them being released.
In a tv re-enactment of this scene - made by non-believers, I hasten to add - Silas’ character is written as griping that such a fate had befallen them and asking Paul how it was that he could be cheerful in the face of such tribulation while, eventually, both prisoners are heard singing almost in a whisper that even the viewers have a hard job making out. We should reject this portrayal of Silas quite obviously but also of the lack of sound which was coming from them for Acts 16:25 says plainly that
‘...the prisoners were listening to them’
Now, if they were in the inner prison and the others were a reasonable distance away, one can’t help but imagine that what was taking place was loud enough to be significant. So where was the expression of feeling sorry for themselves? Or of trying to console one another because of the smarting wounds which were scabbing over? Or of the muscle cramps that were coming upon them as the cold night air crept into the cell while the stocks forbade them from getting comfortable.
I’m sure they would’ve liked to have had a pillow and a duvet but these luxuries didn’t exist. Yet, despite their tribulation and suffering, they respond in prayer and praise to God (Acts 16:24) which isn’t the sort of reaction we’d expect - in a theoretical or religious way we might because we know the Scriptures but, when you think about yourself in the same situation, thanksgiving isn’t one of the responses that we’d credit ourselves with.
Their response to the jailer when he asks what he must do to be saved (Acts 16:30) is also significant to show what the apostles’ state of mind was. If they’d really been caught up with their own situation they might have responded
‘Well you could start from getting us out of here and then we’ll tell you!’
but, instead, they never once expect to be released. Rather, they take the opportunity to proclaim Jesus Christ. What Paul will command and urge upon the believers in his letters, he also practices and allows his devotion to Jesus Christ to take pre-eminence over and above everything that comes against him.
There may be cerebral reasons why suffering is beneficial (and I’ll deal with a few of these in a moment) but the main reason why the bemoaning of the apostles’ fate doesn’t seem to have occurred is that which is hinted at in a couple of places. For instance, the author of Heb 10:34 (my italics) notes that the recipients of his letter
‘...joyfully accepted the plundering of your property since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one’
where earthly possessions were disregarded in the believers’ lives long before persecution ever came upon them, having the effect of pushing their eyes from off the matters and affairs of the world and onto heavenly truths and realities which couldn’t be destroyed by earthly actions. It’s this relationship with God that’s so important to develop for it’s only a believer who looks to God and God alone who will naturally respond in praise and prayer when the going gets tough.
Peter also observes that suffering comes about as a consequence of the anointing of God when he writes (I Peter 1:14) that
‘If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you’
I’ve heard it discussed in the Church on numerous occasions whether tribulation and hardship would stimulate believers into a pure devotion to God to fulfil His purpose for them or whether, if they started doing God’s will in society, persecution would come as a consequence and confirmation of what they were actively pursuing. The truth is neither in one statement nor the other for it’s only when the ‘spirit of glory and of God’ rests upon a believer that difficult situations and circumstances will occur.
That is, tribulation comes about as an opposition to the presence of God - not necessarily to religious good works and not to refine a people who will respond by starting to do the will of Jesus Christ. Similarly, rejoicing in the face of adversity isn’t a weapon in the armoury of the believer but a response of a life which is set upon God.
We don’t rejoice to overcome suffering but rejoicing in God comes out of a relationship with God that doesn’t regard earthly consequences of that relationship of any importance. In other words, rejoicing in God is a response of a heart which is set upon Jesus Christ - not a reaction to something which we find distasteful.
Having said that, we must also note that suffering is regarded as beneficial but only when it comes about as a consequence of what I’ve just outlined. The trials which come upon a believer can be viewed with open arms because they can be allowed to refine the believer in a pure and undivided service to God (James 1:2-3), bringing endurance and perseverance to them (Rom 5:3) and so enhancing and deepening their relationship with God.
So, although suffering in accordance with God’s will is the result of a relationship with God which is overflowing into society through them, its centring upon God means that earthly events don’t consume it but, rather, the trials become a way that the believer grows stronger in Jesus Christ.
In a moment, we’ll look at Paul’s unusual saying about completing what’s lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of the Church but we should note before we move on that the rejoicing in his suffering which Paul is talking about in the opening phrase of this verse is tied in with it also being done
‘...for your [the Colossians’] sake...’
so that we aren’t just thinking about such trouble coming upon the apostle as a result of the relationship he has with Jesus Christ but that he can also envisage his suffering as being beneficial for the body of believers to whom he’s writing. And, even more, to a group of people that he’s never met or visited but which he’s simply learnt about through Epaphras (Col 1:7-8).
This thought isn’t unknown elsewhere in Paul’s letters and he comments in Eph 3:13 (my italics) that the believers shouldn’t
‘...lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory’
and, in II Cor 1:6, that if Timothy and himself (II Cor 1:1)
‘...are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer’
where what Paul experiences becomes the provision needed by the fellowship when they too find themselves afflicted - indeed, if it wasn’t for the occasions when the apostolic band of believers found themselves in problematical situations, the inference is that they may not have found God’s provision to pass on to those who followed in their footsteps. Having said this, Paul uses the same idea of suffering on another’s behalf in the more unusual and startling second phrase which we’ll turn to in a moment. There certainly seems to be a parallel between his statement concerning
‘...my sufferings for your sake...’
‘...Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body...’
so that the latter seems to be an expansion and explanation of the former. As we consider this development of his theme of suffering on the Church’s behalf, then, we’ll see more clearly what it is that the apostle has in view when he talks about it being done for their sake.
Completing what is lacking
The second half of Col 1:24 has certainly been the centre of a great amount of controversy and it seems necessary, therefore, to make some preliminary observations before we attempt to come to terms with Paul’s statement that
‘...in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions...’
a statement if, taken without the context of the NT, could be employed to yield some strange teachings which would undermine the all sufficiency of the work of Jesus Christ.
I noted above that the first half of this verse where Paul introduces the idea of his suffering as being for the sake of the Colossian believers is almost a parallel statement to this one, an expansion to define what it is that he means, and we’ll look at both aspects of his tribulations when we approach the appropriate point.
1. The suffering of Christ and the suffering of the Church
The first thing to try and do is to gain some perspective of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross and to ascertain whether it’s possible that the suffering which Paul is here speaking about is of a similar nature to the once for all sacrifice which was offered to the Father to secure redemption for all those who avail themselves of the provision.
Perhaps the definitive statement is found in Heb 9:25-26 (my italics) where the author states that Jesus doesn’t need to offer Himself as a sacrifice to God repeatedly as the OT high priest had to come into God’s presence annually at Yom Kippur in order for redemption to be thought of as being efficacious continually
‘...for then He would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, He has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself’
The thought is not just one of the shedding of Jesus’ blood but of the suffering which accompanied it on the cross and the two thoughts are tied inextricably together so as to stand or fall as one. The work of redemption and reconciliation, then, is seen as the shedding of the blood of Christ through His suffering on the cross.
It’s the statement that it occurred ‘once for all’ which demonstrates clearly that such an experience won’t be repeated again - and that this special suffering of the Messiah, now that the work for man’s salvation has occurred and been completed, cannot take place in a similar manner to that which has already transpired.
After all, if there was anything lacking in the provision of the cross, there might be a need for believers who come after Jesus to suffer as He also suffered in order that they might be made perfect through their tribulations and to perform some sort of self-redemption which makes up the lack. As it is, Heb 9:12 (my italics) clearly states that Jesus
‘...entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but His own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption’
and, in Heb 10:10 (my italics), that men and women
‘...have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all’
It’s clear, therefore, that the sufferings of the Messiah are meant to be an event in time and space which satisfied the demands of God the Father to secure a once and for all time salvation for the people of God (Rom 5:18, 1 Peter 3:18). On the cross, sin has been dealt with forever and no suffering is able to pay that price - full payment is only to be found in Jesus so that no other person’s suffering can be counted as expiatory.
But suffering is an inevitable consequence of a believer’s life (Acts 14:22, Heb 12:8, II Tim 3:12) whether manifested as the persecution of disciples of Christ or as something which the Father allows for discipline (Heb 12:7-11). General day to day living may also bring suffering though it’s not normally this type of suffering which the NT writers refer to (but, for an example, read I Peter 2:18-20) - even so, through this Christ can still be glorified.
That the physical suffering of Jesus Christ is used as an example which followers are to carefully consider as they find tribulation in the world is also clear, however (I Peter 2:21), but that the type of suffering which secured an everlasting redemption is wholly different from what they experience must also be noted. The NT writers aren’t thinking of a vicarious suffering when they speak of believers enduring tribulation on account of both the Gospel and Jesus and neither are they thinking that such an experience will provide some degree of their salvation for the forgiveness of their sins.
Rather, they see Jesus as the example of physical suffering which they must be prepared to enter in to should the need arise.
2. Sharing suffering with Christ
(like Master, like disciple)
Even though a differentiation must be made between the expiatory suffering of Jesus Christ and the present experience of the suffering of the Church (see the previous section above), it’s paradoxical that believers are the people who share with Christ in suffering in the here and now.
Rom 8:17 highlights the truth that we don’t just share in a similarity of the suffering of the rejection of the cross, but that we’re active participants of the sufferings that Christ is experiencing today - for example, in rejection, persecution and hatred. The verse refers not to a past event (that is, the cross) but to a present reality. Paul writes here that believers are heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ upon the condition that
‘...we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him’
Notice here the union of Jesus with His people and not a strange detachment from their plight. Paul is speaking about sharing in suffering not of experiencing the suffering which was once and for all tasted in the cross. The NT writers speak of this sharing on a number of occasions (I Peter 4:13, Phil 3:10, II Cor 1:5) so that the point shouldn’t be missed.
This union also works the other way round for, on the road to Damascus when the apostle was confronted by Jesus (Acts 9:4 - my italics), He asked him
‘...Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?’
and, in the OT, referring to the time immediately before Exodus from Egypt, the prophet observes (Is 63:9)
‘In all their affliction, He was afflicted...’
It wasn’t just that God felt sorry for His people and wanted to do something for them - but that He actually suffered alongside His people while they were in slavery and, through it, resolved to deliver them out of the hand of their oppressor.
Moving back into the NT and thinking of a believer’s suffering from their own perspective, we must note that being ‘united with Christ’ means that the tribulation that falls upon Christ will fall upon themselves as well. When people aim hatred at Him ‘in the believer’, it must hit the follower first - the follower both mediates that pain and persecution and feels its effects.
Because they belong to Jesus, they share in the same persecution that He experienced on earth then and in them now (John 15:20, Mtw 10:24-25) where the suffering which is in mind has nothing to do with the work of the cross but with the general rejection of Jesus from being a part of the work of God by the religious leadership and all others who failed or refused to accept His appointment by God the Father.
The attitude of the world towards Jesus has become the attitude of the world towards His people (John 15:20) and, instead of the Church standing alone in the darkness all around, they find that they’re united with Jesus in suffering and that He’s by their side, experiencing the same as they feel and bringing comfort when necessary.
Paul was well aware that His ministry would entail a great amount of suffering. That Luke records God’s words to Ananias as he questions Him regarding the command to visit Paul (Acts 9:16 - Saul) is taken to be a clear indication that he was also aware what had been said. Later, in his letters, Paul uses His experience to show the genuineness of His call and ministry (I Cor 4:9-13, II Cor 11:23-29, 12:10) and seems almost consigned to it.
Yet, through all of it, he also would have been aware that Jesus was close by His side, sharing the same tribulation that he was experiencing.
3. The suffering and the glory
(sharing in the two ages)
Because the believer shares in Christ’s afflictions, they can be sure that they will also share in His glory too. If they live in unity with His sufferings (typified in the rejection of the cross), they will also live in unity with Christ’s glory (typified in the resurrection and looked forward to by believers).
Therefore, Paul writes in Rom 8:17 that being heirs of God is dependent upon suffering with Jesus (as we saw above)
‘...in order that we may also be glorified with Him’
Suffering for Christ, then, qualifies the believer to share in the glory which is to be revealed and I Peter 4:13 becomes more easy to understand when we read that the recipients of the letter should
‘...rejoice...as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed’
for one leads to the other. But there’s more to it than this for we shouldn’t think only of the sufferings of the present age as what leads us onto the glory which will soon be revealed when Jesus returns. Rather, we should continue on in the apostle’s letter and note that the next verse (I Peter 4:14) reads that
‘If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you’
That is, not only is it true of the future day when the glory of Christ is revealed but it’s true of the present day in which believers will be experiencing and participating in the ‘powers of the age to come’ (Heb 6:5) by their unity with Jesus in His suffering. We saw above that this verse explains the reason for suffering inasmuch as it shows that it falls upon the believer who walks closely with God but that rejoicing springs up from that life as a natural consequence of the union with God and isn’t a legalistic response to an adverse situation.
Here in the present, therefore, believers live both in the old age and the new - suffering because of the continued rejection of Jesus in the world but tasting a little of the glory which will be revealed in that coming Kingdom.
Both II Cor 4:10 and Phil 3:10-11 speak of the apostle’s experience of the cross and the resurrection as a present reality (though the latter is a prayer for its continued experience) - the former exemplified by the suffering of death in their own bodies while the latter by the power of the resurrection manifested in the same. In the first of these, he writes that he always carries in his own body
‘...the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies’
where the first brings about the reality of the second. This death to one’s own way of living must entail a point at which even what is not ‘enjoyed’ becomes the expression of God’s will through the individual to the point that self-will dies and the power of God springs up through the believer’s life.
The follower of Christ lives in the midst of two ages - the end of the old in which Christ suffered and the beginning of the new in which He’s both glorified and reigning. We therefore inevitably taste of both ages in the present - the suffering and the glory. Therefore Colwright is being accurate when he notes that
‘Instead of old and new ages standing as it were back to back, [Paul] understood them as overlapping. Jesus’ resurrection had inaugurated the new age but the old would continue alongside it until Jesus’ second coming’
and the believer is experiencing both at the same time. As we move on to consider Paul’s observations about filling up what’s lacking in Christ’s afflictions in section 5, we’ll see how this concept of an overlap of the two ages is something which stood in contrast to the Jewish view which saw one coming sharply to a climax at the beginning of the new without a significantly long period of overlap.
4. The necessity of suffering
Before we go on to look at Paul’s statement concerning making up what’s lacking in Christ’s afflictions (Col 1:24), we should be clear by reference to a few Scriptures that suffering is an inevitable part of the believer’s life and not an optional extra. In the western world, suffering has almost been ignored as a logical necessity for a group of believers who are moving in the power and provision of Jesus Christ, but the early Church were assured that, if God was real in them and through them out into the world, the consequence was that they would be rejected in the same way as Jesus had been.
Frightening though the implications of that statement might sound, we would do well to let it have its full force for it points towards an interpretation of our present society as containing a generally weak body of believers who may well be striving after doing God’s will in society but who aren’t moving in the same giant leaps as those of former years did.
One only has to look to areas of the world where Jesus’ followers are moving in power to see that persecution is an inevitable consequence of a life that’s on fire for God. It may be a moot point - and, if you’ve read any of my commentary on Matthew, you will be sick and tired of me saying this - but the persecution of the earliest Church (including of Jesus Himself) came about from the established church.
We should, perhaps, expect such a persecution to take place first and foremost if ever God was to move once more in the fulness of His power in our own society.
But, I digress. Let’s turn our attention to a few NT Scriptures which teach us about the inevitability of persecution. Luke records that the apostolic band exhorted those they met upon their return through the regions previously visited (Acts 14:22) that
‘...through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God’
This was one of Paul’s exhortations to the churches that had already been established (that is, to believers and not the unsaved). Though none of us would look forward to times of suffering, we must arm ourselves with the expectation that suffering is part of our lot as believers. That doesn’t mean that our lives should be consumed totally by suffering and that we should experience no times of joy and great happiness but that, as followers, we can’t be expected to be immune from all forms of tribulation if the glory of God rests upon us.
Paul also exhorts Timothy, his spiritual son, in II Tim 3:12-13 that
‘...all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse...’
The inference here appears to be that godliness is not compatible with the ways of the world and will therefore reap its rewards from a society that’s set upon achieving their own ends at any cost. There will be things that believers cannot be participants in and they will, therefore, find that they’re rejected by men and women who are intent on doing such things.
Just in case we might like to think that such tribulation is a somewhat internal matter, we should also note comments in Heb 12:1-11 where the author (my italics) notes that
‘...In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood...’
‘...it is for discipline that you have to endure...’
The writer speaks of the ‘struggle’ against sin and parallels it with the possibility that one’s blood might have to be shed in the future - something which we might find abhorrent in the present day mindset of pleasing oneself and of seeking pleasurable experiences. But a union with Christ means opposition and that opposition doesn’t use wet sponges (see also Mtw 7:14, Mark 10:29-30, John 15:20, 16:33 16:2-3, II Cor 4:8-12, I Thess 3:3-4, I Peter 4:12-13, 5:9, Rev 12:11).
In our own minds we often equate suffering with the curse of God - the phrase ‘what have I done to deserve this?’ is a phrase used by the world and which sometimes affects our own way of thinking. Indeed, the Jewish leaders couldn’t perceive of a ‘Christ’ that suffered for this very reason and so missed God’s plan for their lives. Their failure should serve as our warning for personal tribulation is clearly a mark of a true believer in the NT.
5. Completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the Church
We’ve already seen that suffering is meant to be an integral part of a believer’s life with Jesus Christ but that it’s not meant to be of the same type as that experienced by Him on the cross (that is, separation from God) which secures redemption on behalf of His people. Perhaps it’s because we see in the cross no more than physical suffering that we make such a parallel but our minds should, rather, focus clearly on the separation from the presence of God which Jesus experienced there (Mtw 27:46) as being that which secured the work.
When we do this, we can perceive that the cross can be used as an example of what it means to suffer physically even though any idea of redemption can be far from the mention of it - that is, we can speak of Jesus suffering rejection by the religious leaders of Israel and the people to demonstrate that such a rejection of Christ will still fall upon those who follow after Him but that the ultimate period of suffering which secured salvation for His people is not in view should also be clear.
Just to read of the sufferings of Christ in Col 1:24 has caused many to think of the cross as being in mind and that a sacrificial work is in view where those who ‘complete what is lacking’ are those who experience some sort of self-redemption in which they do that which Jesus Christ couldn’t on the cross. But, as we saw at the very beginning of this web page, the all-sufficiency of the work prompts us to look elsewhere for an explanation. Even the Greek word being employed here is pointed out by Colcar to be one that’s nowhere used in the NT for the sacrificial work of the cross and, standing alone as it does with no qualifying context, it should prompt us not to think of it as being an automatic inference.
One of the ways to view this is to see the statement as being corporate rather than individual - that is, the Church is being viewed as an extension of Christ’s ministry on the earth so that as He is, they are to be wherever they might find themselves, rather than think of the mention of Jesus Christ as being a reference to the individual and His redemptive sacrifice. To view this verse as a corporate statement of the totality of suffering necessary in the Church as a whole means that Paul’s statement is seen as one which says, in effect
‘What the body of Christ cannot bear, I gladly take upon myself’
where the type of suffering being outlined is that which is directed at Jesus’ followers because He’s in them (see also Colbruce at this point who shows how the suffering of the Christ mentioned in Isaiah can be referred to in terms of that which was to belong to the nation of Israel but which, as we know, fell upon the Individual who was the perfect fulfilment of all that they should have become). We saw above that God takes it upon Himself to feel and experience the pain and suffering of His followers, not looking upon it in some detached way (Acts 9:4) but participating in it. This is in mind when Colcar notes that
‘...we may take these sufferings as being those which Christ suffers in Paul because of the mystical union of the apostle [as with all believers] with his Saviour’
but we should note that the emphasis isn’t on what Jesus suffers but on what Paul suffers on His behalf and the need for it to take place for the benefit of the Church. It’s perhaps better to read Colwright at this point who comments on the verse that
‘By drawing the enemy’s fire onto Himself, [Paul] may allow the young church something of a respite from the fierce attacks they might otherwise be facing’
where the point of rejoicing may also be the result of seeing the believers as being free from the earthly problems which suffering would bring with it. Colwright notes the Greek of the verse and adds a point that a preposition is added to the word translated ‘complete’ by the RSV which is none other than what’s added at the beginning of the word itself. This ‘double preposition’ is difficult to interpret (Colbruce notes that its meaning is ‘disputed’) but the commentator points towards the interpretation (my italics) that
‘...what Paul is suffering, he is suffering in some way not merely on behalf of the young church but actually instead of it’
Therefore Paul can legitimately say that he suffers ‘for the Church’s sake’ (Col 1:24, Eph 3:13) - the one who’d become the prime persecutor had effectively become the prime persecuted (II Cor 11:23-29, Acts 9:16). In conclusion of this view, Paul’s suffering isn’t to be seen as expiatory (section 1) but a participation in the suffering that Christ was presently experiencing in His body, the Church (section 2) and a necessary accompaniment to the manifestation of the powers of the age to come (section 3).
The only problem with such an interpretation is that it seems to overlook the clear statement of Paul that he ‘fills up’ what’s lacking, where what’s being conveyed seems to demand an explanation that sees a measure coming to a completion rather than an indefinable amount which might continue forever.
It’s for this reason that Colbrien’s observations surrounding the Jewish expectations of the precursor to the Messianic age are particularly relevant. In section 3, we noted that there’s clearly an overlap of the two ages in the present - the believer not only resides in the world which continues to decay, experiencing the problems of the flesh and of the deterioration of mankind when left to his own devices but tastes of the new age through Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, the power of the age to come. He observes that Jewish apocalyptic writing
‘...frequently pictured the disasters and catastrophes coming upon the world...as a prelude to the end-time which would usher in the coming anointed ruler of God’
so that they saw the close of the one age as being indicated by an increase in tribulation before the new, Messianic age, would burst into the world, bringing in a time of God’s Sovereign rule throughout the earth. From Matthew chapter 24 it seems, also, that Jesus affirmed that such a time of trouble would take place before the final Day when He would return to set up a Kingdom that could no longer be opposed - the most significant verse seems to be Mtw 24:21 (Pp Mark 13:19) where Jesus warns His disciples (my italics) that
‘...there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be’
where the new age would be clearly preceded by a time of unprecedented suffering and tribulation which had never before been seen on the earth. What the believers of the new covenant therefore experienced was what they understood to be the start of the ‘pains’ of that new age being birthed into their own society and from which they expected times to get significantly worse before the return of the Messiah would establish once and for all time the unopposable Kingdom on earth.
The two beliefs (of Judaism and Christianity) became incompatible simply because the suffering Messiah who was to precede such a time was rejected by the people to whom He came and the concept of a death which would set them free from their spiritual bondage was anathema to those who could only see the Messiah coming as a victorious warrior to establish God’s rule throughout the earth by force.
When Paul came to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah who had both come and who was to come, he certainly would have had some idea of what he was expecting to occur before the great day of YHWH when all things would once more come under His control - but what would have happened over the years since his conversion would be that his understanding of those events and what they were to achieve would have radically been altered.
Instead of seeing a Messiah who was still shrouded in mystery coming to reign, there was now an acknowledgement of who that Man would be and, instead of seeing the coming age as being entirely future, he could see that it was being experienced in the here and now and that it would continue until Jesus’ return when the old would be consumed totally by the appearing and revelation of the new created order.
Colbrien comments on numerous other phrases and concepts here and his notes should be referred to. For example, he notes that the Greek behind ‘what is lacking’
‘...refers to something well-known...and agrees with the apocalyptic notion of a definite measure of affliction to be endured in the last days’
and that there’s
‘...a definite measure of suffering that is to be filled up. That limit of the Messianic woes has not yet been reached’
It might be too crass a statement to see an empty compartment-like quantity which the Father envisages must be completed before the new can come but, in the double preposition noted above, Colbrien sees the implication that
‘...the supply corresponds to the deficiency so that the filling up replaces the lack’
It would, perhaps, be better to see the quality of the rejection as being indicated - that is, when the time came when mankind ultimately rejected the purposes of God for them, then the Father would send the Son to bring back all things under His control. Such a time could only really come when a man would rule who was opposed to every manifestation of God’s will and presence throughout the earth, which filtered down to those men and women under his control so that the revealing of the Antichrist became a logical necessity (and a spiritual certainty!) before the Kingdom could be fully brought in.
Paul’s understanding of the end times, then, is both different and the same as the people in whom he’d been originally saved. While a time of eschatological tribulation was expected, for Paul it was the result of the old persecuting the new, of the decay of the old order coming against the demonstration of that which was imminently to be established (see my exposition of Matthew chapter 24 for more details about this ‘imminency’ and why it didn’t take place) - he realised that the two ages were running side by side until the time appointed by the Father when Jesus would be revealed from Heaven to bring to a conclusion and summate everything in Himself (Col 1:15-20) but that the suffering of the believers was an inevitable consequence until the Father deemed it completed.
Paul’s standing in the gap for the Church so that they don’t participate in such tribulation is still a relevant concept but it’s necessary that we see that he understood the afflictions as being something which were a necessary part of the inauguration of the coming Kingdom.
Finally, we should note the implications of Paul’s last phrase in Col 1:24 where he notes that his suffering is for ‘His Body’ but then immediately goes on to explain that what he means by the phrase is ‘the Church’. Quite clearly, Paul thought that what he’d originally dictated was in fear of being misunderstood if he let it stand. Therefore, he adds a qualifying phrase to make it absolutely certain as to what he means.
The problem with ourselves in the present day, however, is that, even if he’d let ‘the Body’ stand as it was, we wouldn’t have had a great amount of difficulty trying to understand what he meant. We do, however, struggle with the concept of Paul speaking about making up what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions but the apostle offers no word of explanation at that point and seems to expect his readers to be able to understand what it is that he’s speaking about.
Although we can’t even begin to speculate the reasons for the one explanation and the other, it should serve as a warning to us that, because we live so far away from the century in which these words were written, what was obvious to them may prove to be easily misunderstandable and those things which needed careful explanation for the original recipients, we’ll almost take for granted.
The only problem with the interpretation that sees Paul’s words concerning the afflictions as being related to the ‘birth-pangs’ of the coming age is that it isn’t certain that this is the way a predominantly Gentile congregation would have understood them without a simpler and more detailed explanation which the apostle chooses not to give. He does, rather, explain what he means by ‘His body’ in case it gets misunderstood.
6. Defeating God’s enemies through suffering
(why suffering is necessary)
We could leave the notes as they are and move on to the next verse but it seems necessary that we at least make an attempt of trying to explain why it might be that the Father doesn’t provide an impenetrable shield around His people that they might not experience tribulation in the world.
The simplistic answer is to say that each follower lives in both worlds - struggling to come to terms, very often, with the realities of the old order while, at the same time, straining forward to lay hold of all that’s new and has been brought in by the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.
But there remains a purpose in the Church’s suffering which we should note here for, in the tribulation which comes upon His people, the victory of the cross is actually being enforced on earth as a reality and not theoretically or mystically.
Why, then, must we suffer, experience tribulation or be persecuted? What is its purpose in our lives? What changes does it bring about for our benefit? Why are we better with it than always without it?
The story of Shadrach, Meshech and Abednego (SMA) in Daniel chapter 3 illustrates three points concerning God’s purpose for us as individuals but also, when carefully applied, corporately. SMA had refused to worship the god that Nebuchadnezzar had set up in the province of Babylon (Dan 3:1), they were brought before him and ordered to bow down (Dan 3:13-15). Their position was completely clear - they were servants of the God of gods and would not serve the idol (Dan 3:16-18). Notice that SMA didn’t know whether God would save them (Dan 3:18), only that he could save them (Dan 3:17). Likewise, we know that God can save us from the trials that confront us but not necessarily that He will.
And so, because of their faith in God, they refused the easy way out and chose the path of tribulation, suffering and persecution. The fiery ordeal that awaited threatened to destroy them utterly, but God caused them to experience that, far from being a place of cursing, the furnace was a place of blessing in three specific areas:
a. The furnace was a place where they found release
Dan 3:23 - ‘...these three men...fell bound into the burning fiery furnace...’
Dan 3:24-26 - ‘...I see four men loose and walking in the midst of the fire...’
As the apostle Peter wrote (I Peter 4:1-2)
‘...whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer by human passions but by the will of God’
Whatever seeks to bind us, restricting us from living the way that God intends us to live in Christ, is consumed in the flames of the fiery trials that we experience. We become more like Christ for we die to part of the old life that still clings to us. It’s Jesus’ way and not our own that effects the reality of the crucifixion of the cross in the old nature even though the way of the cross is more painful than the way we would choose.
Hebrews 12:11 tells us that
‘...all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it’
Discipline (the context of Heb 12:1-10 indicates that suffering is to be associated with the Lord’s discipline) is a ‘training ground’ where we become people who live more in accordance with the character of Christ, displaying more of a depth in the fruit of the Spirit after the time of discipline than before (Gal 5:22-24).
Changing us in the situation is often the way God chooses rather than changing the situation around us - getting Israel out of Egypt was the easier part of the Exodus for God but, what followed in the wilderness, showed that the ways of Egypt had not yet been taken out of the hearts of Israel.
See also Mal 3:2-3.
b. The furnace was a place where they grew in power
Dan 3:30 - ‘Then the king promoted SMA in the province of Babylon...’
As the apostle Peter wrote (I Peter 5:9-10 - my italics)
‘...after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace...will Himself restore, establish and strengthen you’
The trial is only for ‘a little while’ - when we enter a time of ‘testing’, when the enemy attacks us in order to destroy God’s work in us, we may initially not be experiencing God’s power to overcome him immediately and so we get knocked about. But, after a short time, God strengthens us and causes us to be more steadfast in Him (James 1:2-4) so that we become, in reality, ‘more than conquerors’.
Though the storm may be fierce, we end up more powerful, more able to cope, than when we entered into it - if we continue our obedience to Christ throughout.
Notice that SMA were promoted (Dan 3:30) probably above many of those who’d accused them before the king (Dan 3:3) - they received authority over the enemy that had attacked them and sought to destroy them.
Revelation 12:11 is an important verse in this context to understand the corporate expression of this principle and needs to be read thoughtfully for, speaking about the time immediately before Jesus is to return, John states (my italics) that
‘[The saints] have conquered [satan] by the blood of the lamb, and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death’
The ultimate sacrifice for Christ is to lay one’s life down for Christ literally and die as a result of persecution or tribulation on account of Him. Although the attitude of ‘loving not your life’ is necessary in every believer’s life, those that die for the Lord and not just in the Lord, seal the faith they have with their own blood.
This unity with Christ in death cannot be fought against by satan and he’s always defeated by it. The moment satan has to remove a saint by death because of the threat they pose to his dominion, is the moment that he’s sealed his own defeat if the Church is willing to press on with the work that’s at hand regardless of their brother’s martyrdom.
A life which remains obedient until death undermines satan’s authority - just as Jesus’ perfect obedience ultimately defeated his authority for all time (see my notes on ‘The Restoration of Creation’ in Part 2 Section 3). When martyrdom such as this takes place, satan begins to lose ground even though there may be a numerical loss within the Church for a short period.
The Church is One - a believer’s victory in death is a victory for the Church still alive.
c. The furnace was a place where God became more real to them
Dan 3:25 - ‘...I see four men...and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods’
NB - many believe that this fourth person was none other than Christ; others that it was an angel. Whichever we believe, the point is the same - God became more real to them.
And God spoke through Isaiah (Is 43:1-2) saying
‘...when you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you...I will be with you...’
Far from being a place where we ‘lose’ God’s presence, the fiery ordeal is a place where God draws near to us. Personally speaking, we may not feel His presence, but He will always be with us with more resources available for us, for He knows that our need is far greater in that time than at any other.
But we should also note the considerations above concerning rejoicing in tribulation for the believer shouldn’t be hindered in their praise of God when earthly circumstances seem to conspire against them.
God doesn’t always deliver us out of the situation, therefore, even though He can do this if He so purposes, but He works for our own good by changing us in the situation and then, after He has ‘restored, established and strengthened us’, He will move us on into another where we can grow to be more mature in Christ.
Suffering, then, is a means towards an end - the end that we will become more like Christ - and, provided we remain faithful and obedient to Him throughout that time, we will find our lives transformed and liberated from those things that have dogged and hindered us.
I’ve heard it said that suffering should be welcomed as a friend - but no suffering is pleasurable (though Ignatius seems to have run headlong into it with great glee!). However, the end result of suffering ‘in Christ’ is only ever for our benefit. When we think about the coming Kingdom and Paul’s statements concerning suffering to complete what’s lacking, we should, perhaps, perceive that the coming of the new will be on the back of the victory of the Church.
Many have pictured this victory as being a time when millions of new believers come into the Church throughout the world but, in order for the old ways to be defeated, it means that suffering must take place that it’s hold be weakened.
This dichotomy between what we naturally envisage as being a victory and what the Father sees as achieving victory has never been successfully resolved in the Church. But, if the Body of Christ is ever to successfully advance, suffering is an inevitability that will cause the final victory to be won when Jesus Christ descends from Heaven to set up the unopposable Kingdom of God the Father.
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