Emily, a listener in England, asks, “Dear Pastor John, I’m confused about the role of suffering in Colossians 1:24, where Paul says, ‘I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.’ How can there be anything ‘lacking’ in Christ’s afflictions?”
Lacking What, Exactly?
Excellent. I love this question, because I have wrestled with that text. 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. “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.” 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” (Colossians 1:24).
Christ died and suffered for the sake of gathering his body, building his body, and saving his body. So what in the world does Paul mean here? It sounds heretical to say anything would be missing, deficient, or lacking from Christ’s afflictions. 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). He meant the atoning price was paid in full.
“Christ died and suffered for the sake of gathering his body, building his body, and saving his body.”
When Paul said Christ died for our sins, he didn’t mean for some of them. He didn’t mean his death was partly a covering, partly a curse, or partly a ransom. The covering is complete. The curse he bore is the whole curse, and the ransom he paid is the whole ransom. So, no, Paul is not saying that the death of Christ is ineffective, deficient, or lacking in any of its atoning accomplishments for his church. What in the world, then, does he mean when he says, “I am filling up”? What is lacking in Christ’s afflictions?
I found the key in Philippians 2:30. Now, you test whether you think this is the key or not. There are a couple of other places where Paul uses this as well, but let me just take one. I went looking for the language of “filling up what is lacking.” What does that mean in Paul’s language? In Philippians 2:30, Paul writes about Epaphroditus, who had just brought him gifts from the church in Philippi. Paul 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 their hearts were deficient or the amount of their gift was deficient. He meant what he said in Philippians 4:10: “You were indeed concerned for me, but you had you no opportunity.” They were living hundreds of miles away over in Philippi. Paul was in jail in Rome. They had got a big gift ready for him, but it was not doing him any good because he didn’t even know about it, nor did he have it. So, what did Epaphroditus do? He filled up what was lacking, so that Paul could say, “I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent” (Philippians 4:18).
The way Epaphroditus completed or filled up what was lacking in their service was not by adding to it, but by bringing it. He brought it, not only to make sure Paul saw it (though Paul saw it, felt it, and had it in his hands), but 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 is happening in Colossians 1:24. “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh” — this is Epaphroditus risking his life — “I am filling up what is lacking.” This is Paul bringing the gift to the nations, filling up what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions. That doesn’t mean something was added to Christ’s atonement by Paul; it means that in Paul’s own missionary sufferings he was displaying and transmitting the sufferings of Christ to the nations. He was telling them in his message and his body, “Here is what Jesus did. Here are the complete atoning afflictions of Christ.”
“Not only will you speak the sufferings of Christ; you will live the sufferings of Christ.”
Paul completed Jesus’s afflictions by transmitting them. They have zero effect on lost people until they are known, until they are seen, believed, and loved. Here is the shocking implication 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.
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. In both of those ways you will bring people into contact with those sufferings so that they can be saved. In that sense, you will complete the afflictions of Christ.