The following is a transcript of the audio.
Emily, a listener in England asks: “Dear Pastor John, I’m confused about the role of suffering mentioned in Colossians 1:24-25 where Paul says: ‘I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, which is the church.’ How can there be anything ‘lacking’ in Christ’s afflictions?”
Excellent. I love this question, because I have wrestled with that text and I have had such a wonderful experience with regard to missions because of what I think this text means. Let me read it one more time, just Colossians 1:24. Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sakes. Paul is rejoicing—this is crazy, right—in his sufferings for their sake. He was a means of gathering them into the body. And in my flesh—that is in my suffering flesh—I am filling up or completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is the Church. So it is like Christ died and suffered for the sake of gathering his body and building his body and saving his body. So what in the world does Paul mean here, because it sounds heretical to say anything would be missing or deficient or lacking from Christ’s afflictions? And surely it does not mean that anything is lacking in the atoning effect, the atoning sufficiency of those afflictions. Jesus said: It is finished, John 19:30 and he meant the atoning price is paid in full. When Christ... when Paul said Christ died for our sins, he didn’t mean for some of them or his death was partly a covering or partly a curse or partly a ransom. But the covering is complete. The curse that he bore is the whole curse and the ransom that he paid is the whole ransom. So, no, Paul is not saying that the death of Christ is effective or deficient or lacking in any of its atoning accomplishments for his Church. So what in the world, then, does he mean when he says: I am filling up? What is lacking in Christ’s afflictions?
And I found the key and you test now whether you think this is the key or not. Over in Philippians 2:30—and there are a couple of other places where Paul uses this as well. Let me just take one. I went looking for the language of filling up what is lacking, filling up what is lacking. What does that mean in Paul’s language? And here is what he says in Philippians 2:30 about Epaphroditus who had just brought him gifts from the Church in Philippi. He said: He nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete or fill up what was lacking, same language, in your service to me.
Now what did he mean by what was lacking in their service? He didn’t mean that their hearts were deficient or the amount of their gift was deficient? What he meant was—and he said this in chapter four verse 10: You were indeed concerned for me, but you had you no opportunity. So they are living hundreds of miles away over there in Philippi. Paul is in jail in Rome. They have got a big gift ready for him and it is not doing him any good because he doesn’t even know about it and he doesn’t have it. So what did Epaphroditus do? He filled up what was lacking, meaning, chapter four verse 18: I have received full payment and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent.
So the way Epaphroditus completed or filled up what was lacking in their service is not that he added to it, but that he brought it. He brought it not only to make sure they saw it and, I mean, Paul saw it and felt it, had it in his hands, but that he brought it at the price of his own suffering. He risked his life to complete what was lacking.
Now let’s go back and see if that is not what happened in Colossians 1:24. I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake and in my flesh — so this is Epaphroditus risking his life — I am filling up what was lacking. This is Paul bringing the gift to the nations, filling up what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions. So that doesn’t mean that in Christ’s atonement something was added by Paul, it means that in Paul’s own mis-sionary sufferings, he is displaying and transmitting the sufferings of Christ to the nations. He is telling them in his message and he is telling them in his body: Here is what he did. Here is the complete atoning afflictions of Christ. And the sense in which he is completing them is by transmitting them. They have zero effect on lost people until they are known, until they are seen and believed and loved. And here is the shocking thing for missions that I have discovered. Paul really does mean that his own sufferings are the means by which people taste and see the sufferings of Christ.
So this is a sober word to missionaries because it says: Not only will you speak the sufferings of Christ, you will live the sufferings of Christ. And in both of those ways bring people into contact with those sufferings so that they can be saved and, in that sense, complete the afflictions of Christ.