We read in 1 Thessalonians 1:6, “You also have become imitators of us and of the Lord.” In this text there are two people who are models of something, namely Jesus and Paul. Here is what they are models of: “having received the word in much tribulation with joy of the Holy Spirit.” Jesus was a man who received the word of God in tribulation, but was sustained by joy.
We read in Hebrews, “For the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2). Paul was a man who received the word of God and was told in receiving of it, “I will show him how much he must suffer for me” (Acts 9:6). Yet the apostle said over and over again that he rejoiced in tribulation. We are called to be imitators of Jesus and Paul. We are called to receive the word in much tribulation, but with great joy.
Paul lived a life of suffering. The question is: What was the function of suffering in the apostle’s life? Or what is the function of the suffering in the pastor’s life, the missionary’s life, and the saint’s life? Is it something that just happens to a pastor, and then that person can honor God because of the way he deals with it? Or is there a purpose for it in the church? Can a pastor suffer for his church? Can he suffer for his mission field?
Is suffering just something that comes because the devil is a bad person and we then convert it into sanctifying influences through the power of the Holy Spirit? Or could it be that when God said to Paul, “I will show you how much you must suffer,” that then there is a design and strategy in this suffering? I bring these questions and this topic up because leaders need to hear about suffering. Most pastors come from well-to-do churches, where very few people realize that they suffer by design.
Suffering as Strategy
Richard Wurmbrand was a Romanian pastor who suffered for fourteen years in prison for the sake of the gospel. I learned from him by literally sitting at his feet, since he takes his shoes off and sits down when he speaks. It was about fifteen years ago when I was with about twelve other pastors sitting low at Richard’s feet, and it was then that he sowed into my heart the seed of embracing suffering as a strategy.
He asked questions like, “If you and the man next to you knew that both of you were about to have a child, one disabled, the other whole, which would you choose to have?” Even that question had a profound impact on me, and I’ve recently seen some ways it has influenced my flock. At Bethlehem Baptist, dozens of babies are adopted — from all over the United States and all over the world. Families are willing to endure suffering by adopting these little children from orphanages in Ukraine. The result is pain, and if God is merciful, glory. Some of these families have endured such pain that they’ve had to consider letting these kids go, and the pain of that is incredible. These families have put themselves in life-threatening situations because of their choice to love and ultimately because of their choice to suffer.
Richard Wurmbrand has also impacted me through a story that he told. It was a story about a Cistercian monk, which is an order in the Catholic Church that is always quiet. A radio interviewer in Italy asked this abbot of the Cistercian monastery, “What if you were to realize at the end of your life that atheism is true, and that there is no God?” And the abbot replied, “Holiness, silence, and sacrifice are beautiful in themselves. Even without the promise of a reward, I still will have used my life well.”
Paul, however, would have given the exact opposite answer, because he did give the exact opposite answer in 1 Corinthians 15:19. Paul wrote, “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” There’s not a text in the last ten years of my life that has caused me more difficulty than this passage, brought me to my face, called my ministry into question, and threatened to change my future more than this text.
“We are called to receive the word in much tribulation, but with great joy.”
This passage says that if there is no resurrection from the dead, then the choices I am making and the life I am living are absolutely absurd. This kind of thinking is shocking in America because almost nobody sells Christianity this way. People sell Christianity as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, better marriage, and more obedient kids. Even a God who perhaps prospers your business. Consequently, if Christianity is a delusion, then it does not make a difference as long as you’ve lived a good life.
However, Paul had the opposite view. We are of all men most to be laughed at, pitied, regarded as foolish and absurd if we are not raised from the dead after this hellish life. Paul did explain in the same chapter the alternative option if there is no resurrection from the dead. He wrote, “Let us eat and drink.” Now, he didn’t mean by that we should all become drunkards and gluttons if there’s no resurrection. To be a glutton and be overweight means having a heart attack when you’re 36.
Or to be a drunkard entails a difficult life. Nobody looks at those modes of life and says, “There’s the life.” What Paul meant is, “Just be normal.” Eat, drink, be normal, avoid any excessive risks, keep the security high, and enjoy reasonable comforts. That is how one is to live if there’s no resurrection from the dead. Normal, simple, ordinary, cultural Christianity if there is no resurrection.
Paul further explained how the truth of the resurrection impacted his life in 1 Corinthians 15:29–31: “If the dead are not raised . . . why am I in peril every hour?” I read that on the plane today and thought to myself, “Good night.” If I’m in peril even one hour, I will try to fix it. I naturally do not want to be in peril, but Paul chose it. For Paul, it wasn’t just one hour, it was every day, all day. Danger on the seas, danger on the roads, danger in the city, danger from faulty brethren, and danger from the enemy. Paul did not have security, and it seems like he was always in danger.
I’ve been in danger just a few times in my neighborhood when threats have come. As a result, it’s tough to concentrate and do ministry. How are you going to prepare to talk to the Muslims tomorrow if the mob is outside tonight? Though in peril every hour, Paul went on to write, “I affirm, brethren, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily” (1 Corinthians 15:31).
Now that’s foolish if there’s no resurrection from the dead. If there’s no assurance of resurrection from the dead, then you should get maximum life every day. This man thought this way, this man made these kinds of choices because he knew true joy. Paul’s answer for suffering well is found in Colossians 1:24.
An Intimidating Text
In John MacArthur’s office there is this brass statue of a man on his knees with his hands out. On the statue is written, “I will trust in the Lord.” This statue of a man cringing face down before Almighty God is how I feel before these types of passages. As pastors, we are sometimes tempted to use the Bible in order to escape the Bible. We use expository preaching as the means for ministry to protect ourselves from passages that stretch us to minister in other ways. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in expository preaching with all my heart, but God calls us to be more than just expositors.
Rejoice in Suffering
We read in Colossians 1:24, “Now, I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.” We don’t know what to do with a verse like this. Almost everyone in my church does the complete opposite — they grumble when they suffer, they ask God, “Why?” and they don’t rejoice. What’s wrong with apostle Paul? Does he come from another planet? Yet the biblical pattern of life is so supernatural, so radical, and so different that very few pastors and laymen are living it.
We continue reading, “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 what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” Paul labels his suffering as “the filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” Suffering is designed to accomplish something called, “filling up” what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.
What does this mean? We all know what it does not mean. We know from Paul and Jesus that this verse does not mean that apostle Paul improves upon the atoning work of the cross. When Jesus declared, “It is finished,” He meant an infinitely valuable and perfect sacrifice has been made, and nobody can ever improve upon that sacrifice. What has been paid on the cross is paid in full, and no one can make any contribution to the payment that was made for the forgiveness of sins and the justification of lives before a holy God. Jesus alone has done this, and we find our security by resting in it.
So if that is what this verse does not mean, then what does it mean? What is lacking in the afflictions of Christ is not the perfection of the value of its atoning worth, but the personal presentation to those for whom he paid the price. Christ, by the Father’s design, means for his atoning sufferings to be offered and presented to all those for whom he died, in every people group in the world; and this is to be done through suffering.
However, this suffering must be accompanied with joy, because without it one will never survive. For the joy that was set before Christ, he endured the cross. And for the joy that is set before you, you will endure the choices that you make, which make no sense if there’s no resurrection from the dead. Joy is the only way you’ll survive your mission in this world if you decide to suffer for Christ. The joy of the Lord will be your strength through choices that nobody understands.
A Parallel Example
Now, why do I think this passage means what I just said it means? Because of the parallel use of language in Philippians 2. I took the two key terms in this passage, “fill up” and “lacking” and searched where else these terms were paired. The clearest parallel example is found in Philippians 2, when Paul wrote about Epaphroditus. Epaphroditus was the individual who took the gifts from the Philippians to Rome, where Paul was.
“The joy of the Lord will be your strength through choices that nobody understands.”
Paul responded to the Philippians with this letter and commended Epaphroditus because he risked his life almost to the point of death, according to Philippians 2:27. Epaphroditus made a choice that would have been pretty foolish to the world, but nonetheless, he made it. We read that he survived because “God had mercy on him” (verse 27). Therefore, Paul told the church to receive him with joy and to hold him and others like him in high regard.
In verse 3 we read that Epaphroditus “came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was deficient in your service to me.” We see in this verse the two words found in Colossians 1:24, lacking and fill up. Here we have a very close parallel. The Philippians had a love gift for Paul; they were willing to sacrifice in order to serve a fellow brother in Christ. Yet this gift is incomplete until the Philippians get it to be where it was designed to be — in Rome. And Epaphroditus fills up what is lacking with the cost of almost his own life.
Marvin Vincent, who wrote a commentary on Philippians a little over 100 years ago, wrote on this passage, “The gift to Paul was a gift to the church as a body. It was a sacrificial offering of love. What was lacking was the church’s presentation of this offering in person.”
Paul represented Epaphroditus as supplying what was lacking by his affectionate and zealous ministry. And that’s my interpretation of Colossians 1:24 — I think that’s exactly what’s going on in that verse. Jesus Christ has an affectionate sacrifice and offering for the world. He has designed that it not be telecast or radioed only, but embodied. Now, here’s the question: If the design is to get the atoning, effective, powerful, gospel-feeling sufferings of Jesus into the lives of those for whom it was designed, by what means shall it happened? Paul made it very clear by what means in Colossians 1:24: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh . . . I fill up.”
The method for the “filling up” the “lack” of personal presentation is what happened to Paul’s body when he preached:
Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. (2 Corinthians 11:24–27)
Suffering is essential! Don’t be a pastor if you don’t believe that. God means for you to reach his people among all of the people groups of the world and in our neighborhoods with faithfulness in the midst of suffering. He means for those people to see Jesus, the real crucified Jesus, in your crucifixion. That’s what Paul was writing in Colossians 1:24.
A Common Occurrence
I recently received a letter, and I’m going to use some false names here because I don’t know if this person wants this out. The letter reads,
<Two weeks ago, my brother, Joe, was shot as he sat in his hut in a northern Uganda village. Joe and his wife, Frances, are missionaries to the Muslim tribe Aringa in northern Uganda, which is three miles from Sudanese border. Frances and Joy, their five-month-old daughter, had just arrived in the States for a short visit since they’d been gone over a year. Joe remained in Africa. Two days after France’s arrival, Joe and Martin were sitting together in the living area in the hut in the evening when they heard a strange sound outside. Joe suspected trouble. He jumped up, kicked the door shut just before the spray of bullets was released. The bullets exploded through the door, hit Joe in his shoulder and Martin in the lower arm.
The letter continues to explain that the assailants broke in, demanded money as they dragged the two men around, and these men cried out for Jesus to save them. What happened? The soldiers lowered their weapons and walked away. The men spent five hours without any medical aid and they still survived. That story had a happy ending, but we all know the stories that have the less “earthly” happy ending.
This is normal! Woe to the church that doesn’t teach their young people that this is normal. Paul wrote, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake and I filled up what is lacking.” Now, is this just apostolic? No, because Jesus declared, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35). Beloved, the path of salvation is the path of losing one’s life for the sake of the gospel. We also read in 2 Timothy 3:12, “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
That truth of suffering for the glory of God applies to everyone. And the reason this truth finds so little echo in the American church is because we have so domesticated the word godliness — so much so that we scarcely can begin to comprehend what Paul meant by it. Godliness is limited to reading your Bible, going to church, and keeping the commandments.
“The path of salvation is the path of losing one’s life for the sake of the gospel.”
But that’s not all there is to godliness because the Pharisees did all of those things. Godliness is so being ravished by God, so satisfied by God, so filled with God, so driven by Jesus that you live in a way that the only explanation for your life is the promise of God raising you from the dead. That’s why I’m always praying, “Lord, get my wife and I ready for our next decision.”
We will never be Christ’s church until we choose to take risks that can only be explained by the resurrection from the dead. That’s the only way that we’ll be the church that we ought to be and finish the Great Commission.
Joy Is the Key to Suffering
The last word to investigate here is joy. “I rejoice in my sufferings.” The Calvary road is a hard road filled with joy and Paul’s joy seems to me to be absolutely boundless. He wrote to the Corinthians, “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:2). What is the key to this joy? We find it in Romans 5:2: “We exult in hope of the glory of God.” Paul continued, “Not only this, but we also exult in our tribulation.”
I just read this morning an article by Marvin Olasky on the topic of proselytizing in the current issue of World Magazine. He mentioned that Christianity has excellent examples of how to proselytize. But he also uses an illustration of bad ways to do it. He wrote that 100 years ago, in Turkey, Muslims lined up Armenian Christians and certain Muslim leaders would walk down the line and ask the question, “Do you worship Christ or Allah?” If the answer was “Christ,” a sword was thrust to the abdomen. Now, how many people do you watch that happen to before you make up your mind as to what you will answer? Joy in Christ at that moment is not optional, it is the only hope of obedience. That’s why Paul says here, “I rejoice in my sufferings.”
Filling Up What Is Lacking
I want to conclude with an illustration from J. Oswald Sanders, a great statesman missionary. Sanders died a few years ago, and he was 89 when I heard him last. He gave an illustration which so perfectly embodies Colossians 1:24. Sanders talked about an Indian evangelist, a brand new believer who wanted to tell everybody about Jesus. He traveled the whole day and after a very difficult journey came to a village. He wondered whether he should wait until the morning to evangelize to this village. But then he decided to go into the village and preach the gospel before resting. The evangelist got the crowd around him, preached the gospel, and they scoffed at him. He quit because he was tired and discouraged, walked out of the village, and laid down underneath a tree to sleep.
A few hours later as the sun was going down, he woke up startled with the whole village around him. He saw one of the leaders of the village over him and thought, “Oh, they’re going to hurt me or kill me.” The leader said, “We came out to see you and noticed the bloody feet that you have. We’ve decided that you must be a holy man and that you care about us because you came so far as to have feet like this. We would like to hear your message again.”
Pastor, we rejoice in our sufferings, and in our flesh we fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Jesus. One thing that is lacking in the afflictions of Jesus is a personal, embodied, bloody presentation of his cross to those for whom he died. We must be that presentation. I’ve preached this message multiple times because I feel burdened to call the church to get ready not for what may happen, but for what should happen if we’re living Paul’s life.
You are being called through my mouth by God Almighty to make choices in your ministry, in your marriage, and in your parenting. If you are hovering right on the brink of a radical decision. I’m excited for you. I want to push you over the edge and reinforce what God is calling you to do, and that is to make choices in the service of love, not masochism — a service of suffering and sacrifice that can only be explained if Christ will raise you from the dead.