What is the key to effective ministry? Just about every Christian wants to be used by God to transform the lives of others. So how does God use us? How does he make ministry effective in us and through us? It’s a question Pastor John asked and then answered from Scripture, in front of an auditorium full of college students at the Passion Conference 2006 in Nashville. His message was titled “How Our Suffering Glorifies the Greatness of the Grace of God.” Have a listen.
The purpose of God in creating the universe is to display the greatness of the glory of his grace supremely in the suffering of his Son. Will you join the Son in displaying the supreme satisfaction of the glory of grace, in joining him on the Calvary road of suffering? Because there’s no other way the world is going to see the supreme glory of Christ today, except that we break free from the Disneyland of America and begin to live lifestyles of missionary sacrifice that looks to the world like our treasure is in heaven and not on the earth. It’s the only way.
The prosperity gospel will not make anybody praise Jesus. It will make people praise prosperity. “Of course I’ll have a Jesus who’ll give me a car. Who wouldn’t want a Jesus who gives me health, a car, a fine marriage? I’ll take your Jesus if the payoff is right.” That’s not the way you’re going to win your campuses: dressing the coolest, driving the coolest, typing on the coolest. That’s not going to get any praise for the suffering Christ.
Risk for the Cause of Christ
Paul said that if there’s no resurrection, we are of all men most to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:19). Listen to how he puts the point in his own experience. He said,
If the dead are not raised . . . why are we in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! (1 Corinthians 15:29–31)
He says two things: (1) “I’m in peril every hour,” and (2) “I die every day.” “I make so many choices to magnify Jesus in hard places, it hurts me every day. I would not choose this if it weren’t true. If I couldn’t expect the resurrection from the dead, where everything would be paid back to me a thousandfold that I have laid down in the service of Jesus, I wouldn’t go this way. I’m in peril every hour. I die every day.”
I want to ask, “Why, Paul? What are you up to? What’s the meaning of this chosen life of risk and suffering?” You need to ask that right now: Why would I choose to deny myself ordinary, innocent things and take risks with my life for the cause of Christ? Why would I do that?
Extend His Affliction
I want to take you to Colossians 1. If you have a Bible and you can see it, then you can look at it with me, if you’d like. I’m going to read Colossians 1:24. “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”
That’s almost heresy — almost. To say, “In my body — my fallen, sinful body — I am completing (or filling up) what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ,” that’s almost heresy. It would be heresy if he meant that the sufferings of Christ lack something in their atoning work. “In the debt that he paid for sin, there’s not enough there. I’m going to add the rest so that the world can have an atonement that is sufficient for their sins.” That’s heresy. And that’s not what he meant.
What did he mean? What did he mean when he said “in my body”? What would you mean? If you walked out of here tomorrow and said, “All right, I am, God helping me, going to fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on my campus or among the unreached peoples of the world,” what would you mean? You should be able to say that. I hope you will.
I think what you should mean is not that you add to the atoning merit or value or worth of the death of Christ, but that you add the extension of that suffering to those for whom he died — in your own body and suffering.
Connect Christ’s Suffering
There’s a parallel statement to Colossians 1:24 in Philippians 2. The situation is that the Philippian church loves Paul. Paul is in prison in Rome, hundreds of miles away. Epaphroditus says, “I am willing to take the offering and the blessing that we as a church put together to show the love that we have for Paul. We want to show our love for him.” Epaphroditus takes whatever it was — we’re not told. It could be money, could be books, could be food, clothing, and he takes it to Rome, and he almost dies. He suffers in doing this. He suffers in extending the love of the Philippians to Paul.
And then you have this sentence, where Paul encourages people to praise such a one as Epaphroditus: “for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me” (Philippians 2:30).
He said that to the Philippians. It’s almost exactly the same wording in Philippians 2:30 as in Colossians 1:24. Paul says that he fills up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. And Epaphroditus fills up what is lacking in the service of the Philippians.
Now, what was lacking in the service of the Philippians? Listen to this commentator, Marvin Vincent. I think he gets it exactly right. He says,
The gift to Paul was the gift of the church as a body. It was a sacrificial offering of love. What was lacking, and what would have been grateful to Paul and to the church alike, was the church’s presentation of this offering in person. This was impossible, and Paul represents Epaphroditus as supplying this lack by his affectionate and zealous ministry. (Philippians and Philemon: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, 78)
I think that’s exactly what Colossians 1:24 means. When Paul says, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions,” he means that Christ died for millions of people all over the world — people on your campus, people in the unreached peoples of the world. Their debt has been paid, and they don’t know it — they can’t taste it; they can’t feel it. They can’t sing with us, “I thank you for the cross, my Friend. I thank you for the cross.” There’s something missing in the suffering. It’s not showing up. It’s not connecting. There’s something lacking in the sufferings — namely, the presentation of the sufferings.
What Really Satisfies
Here’s the amazing thing. You might respond by saying, “Well, obviously, the gospel has to be spread.” But it’s not actually obvious what he’s saying here. He’s not saying simply that the gospel has to be spread. He is saying, “It is through my body and my sufferings that the sufferings of Christ arrive in the unreached peoples of the world or on your campus.” How do the sufferings of Jesus arrive on your campus? They arrive through your sufferings. That’s the meaning of Colossians 1:24: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.”
It’s an amazing statement. And just think about the history of missions for a moment. How did we get to where we are today, with 1.3 or 1.4 billion people professing faith in Jesus Christ when it started from 12? How did we get here? Do you know what the answer is? Suffering. There never has been a breakthrough into an unreached place or people without suffering. If you’re going to be a missionary, mark it down: pain, loss of a child, malaria, marital strife, tensions on the team, demonic opposition, martyrdom. It’s going to come. Don’t think it’s strange when it comes. It’s the price.
Jesus paid his life for our salvation. We join him in that suffering to display the nature of it. How are they going to see how satisfying he is in us, if we look like it’s the computer toy that is really satisfying?