The following is based on notes taken during the message and the manuscript of "Called to Suffer and Rejoice."
When I have lots to say and can’t pack it all into one text, I have several introductions. So here are three.
- David Sitton said he got emails about the title of this conference “The Purpose-Driven Death.” Some said they didn’t like it, but I love it. It should call biblical texts to mind for Christians. Like John 21:19 when Jesus showed Peter by what death he would glorify God. That’s a purpose-driven death. “By what death you will glorify God.”
- Matthew 24:9-14—The context in which Jesus promises that the gospel will go to the nations is the same context in which he gives a pretty bleak description of the future. Lawlessness will increase, and the love of many will grow cold. And cold people don’t finish the Great Commission.
But it will be finished.
I’m an optimistic premillenialist. Things will get bad but those who endure in the faith will finish the Commission. As the glacier spreads, there will be pockets of fire that torch the glacier so that the glory of God will shine through.
- I was in England a few weeks ago speaking to college students. We did a missions emphasis one evening. They assigned me to speak on “As the Father has sent me so send I you.” God showed up in the most remarkable way. Many students gave themselves to God.
Then I began a few weeks ago preaching on the Gospel of John. John 1:6 says that there was a man sent from God—John the Baptist. I was moved in the preparation of that message more than I have been in years. The Holy Spirit warmed my heart to this word sending.
So I paused in my sermon and said that I thought that God meant to send some from our midst in that sermon. I gave the sermon three times that weekend. After each one, three couples came and said they sensed the call to go.
The Abbot and the Apostle
Once I attended a pastors’ gathering with Richard Wurmbrand. He asked questions like, “Will you choose to suffer?” If suffering were offered to you as a gift, would you accept it?
He told a story about an abbot. A reporter asked him about what he would say if found out at the end of his life that there was no God. He said, “Holiness, silence, and sacrifice are beautiful in themselves. I still would have used my life well.” Does that sound noble? Right?
Here’s what Paul said: “If for this life only, we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.” Why did Paul say that? Because his life was a life of consciously embraced suffering. Read the list in 2 Corinthians 11:23–28. Most of us define the benefits of Christianity with how it makes our life better now: “Your best life now.”
What Does Paul Mean?
Let’s go to Colossians, chapter 1, and we’ll look at one verse: verse 24: “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 that which is lacking in Christ's afflictions.” Paul suffers, and he says that in his sufferings he fills up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions? What does that mean?
Here’s my answer in summary: What’s missing is the in-person presentation of Christ’s sufferings to the people for whom he died. The afflictions are lacking in the sense that they are not seen and known among the nations. They must be carried by ministers of the gospel. And those ministers of the gospel fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ by extending them to others.
Paul sees his own suffering as the visible reenactment of the sufferings of Christ so that they will see Christ’s love for them.
A Hint in Philippians 2:30
There is a strong confirmation of this in the use of similar words in Philippians 2:30. There was a man named Epaphroditus in the church at Philippi. When the church there gathered support for Paul (perhaps money or supplies or books), they decided to send them to Paul in Rome by the hand of Epaphroditus. In his travels with this supply Epaphroditus almost loses his life. Verse 27 says he was sick to the point of death, but God spared him.
Then in verse 29 Paul tells the church in Philippi to honor Epaphroditus when he comes back, and he gives his reason in verse 30 which has words very similar to Colossians 1:24. "Because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete [i.e., fill up] what was lacking in your service to me." Now in the original the phrase "completing what was lacking" in your service to me is almost the same as "filling up what is lacking" in Christ's afflictions in Colossians 1:24.
In what sense, then, was the service of the Philippians to Paul "lacking" and in what sense did Epaphroditus "fill up" what was lacking in their service?
One Thing Lacking
A hundred years ago a commentator, Marvin Vincent, I think gets it exactly right.
The gift to Paul was a 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. (Epistle to the Philippians and to Philemon, ICC, p. 78)
I think that is exactly what the words mean in Colossians 1:24 as well. Christ has prepared a love offering for the world by suffering and dying for sinners. It is full and lacking in nothing—except one thing, a personal presentation by Christ himself to the nations of the world and the people of your workplace. God's answer to this lack is to call the people of Christ (people like Paul) to present the afflictions of Christ to the world—to carry them from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.
In doing this we "fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ." We finish what they were designed for, namely, a personal presentation to the world of people who do not know about their infinite worth.
God’s Strategy for Completing His Commission
But notice how Paul says this in verse 24: He says that it is in his sufferings and in his flesh—that is, his actual, suffering body that he does his share in filling up the afflictions of Christ. So Paul sees a very close connection between his sufferings and Christ's afflictions.
What this means, I think, is that God intends for the afflictions of Christ to be presented to the world through the afflictions of his people. God really means for the body of Christ, the church, to experience some of the suffering he experienced so that when we offer the Christ of the cross to people, they see the Christ of the cross in us. We are to make the afflictions of Christ real for people by the afflictions we experience in offering him to them, and living the life of love he lived.
"I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake . . . filling up that which is lacking in the afflictions of Christ." Christ wills to have a personal presentation of his sufferings to the world. And the way he means to offer himself as a sufferer for the world to the world is through his people who, like him, are willing to suffer for the world.
His sufferings are completed in our sufferings because in ours the world sees his, and they have their appointed effect. The suffering love of Christ for sinners is seen in the suffering love of his people for sinners.
I think what we see in Colossians 1:24 is the living out of Jesus' words in Mark 8:35, "Whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's shall save it." The pathway of salvation is the pathway of "losing one's life for the sake of the gospel."
The point is that taking the gospel to people (across the office or across the ocean) ordinarily requires sacrifice and suffering, a losing of life or a denying of self. This is the way Christ means for his saving sufferings to be taken to the world, through the sufferings of his people. Suffering is God’s strategy for completing the Great Commission. We have plenty of time in eternity to enjoy the benefits.
Notice the word rejoice in verse 24: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake." The Calvary road is not a joyless road. It is a painful one, but it is a profoundly happy one. You can’t escape pain; why not make it meaningful? When we choose the fleeting pleasures of comfort and security over the sacrifices and sufferings of missions and evangelism and ministry and love, we choose against joy.
God is calling us in this text to live for the sake of the gospel and to do that through suffering. Christ chose suffering, it didn't just happen to him. He chose it as the way to create and perfect the church. Now he calls us to choose suffering. That is, he calls us to take up our cross and follow him on the Calvary road and deny ourselves and make sacrifices for the sake of presenting his suffering to the world and ministering to the church.
Beautiful, Blistered Feet
Fifteen years ago, I had an opportunity to hear J. Oswald Sanders speak. His message touched deeply on suffering. He was 89 years old and still traveling and speaking around the world. He had written a book a year since he turned 70! I mention that only to exult in the utter dedication of a life poured out for the gospel without thought of coasting in self-indulgence from 65 to the grave.
He told the story of an indigenous missionary who walked barefoot from village to village preaching the gospel in India. His hardships were many. After a long day of many miles and much discouragement, he came to a certain village and tried to speak the gospel but was driven out of town and rejected. So he went to the edge of the village dejected and lay down under a tree and slept from exhaustion.
When he awoke, people were hovering over him, and the whole town was gathered around to hear him speak. The head man of the village explained that they came to look him over while he was sleeping. When they saw his blistered feet, they concluded that he must be a holy man, and that they had been evil to reject him. They were sorry and wanted to hear the message that he was willing to suffer so much to bring them.
So the evangelist filled up the afflictions of Jesus with his beautiful blistered feet.
Tomorrow’s Martyrs Made Today
The martyrs of 30 years from now are made today, in services like this, on days like today. It seems so far away. But it’s not. It’s just as far away as a commitment.