I want us to focus on verse 24 of Colossians 1:24–29 and Paul’s “filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” How could anything be lacking in Christ’s afflictions? Was not his suffering and death for us utterly all-sufficient? So what does he mean in verse 24 and how does it apply to us?
The Word to the Nations
But to see verse 24 properly, let’s look at it in connection with the rest of the verses. Starting at verse 29, let’s go backward and sum up what Paul is saying in this paragraph.
Verse 29: Paul says that there is a purpose for which he labors. And the striving, the agonizing, of this labor is not merely his own energy. It is the power of Christ mightily working in him.
Verse 28 describes the purpose that Paul labors for, namely, to present everyone that he reaches “complete in Christ.” And he does this by proclaiming Christ, admonishing everyone, and teaching everyone. This is Paul’s ceaseless labor which Christ energizes.
Verses 26–27 define more explicitly what Paul proclaims and teaches. It’s called a “mystery” in verse 26, not because it can’t be understood, but because it has been hidden for ages and has now been revealed to the saints. Then verse 27 describes the riches of the glory of this mystery. It is “Christ in you [Gentiles], the hope of glory.” What was not revealed fully in past ages was that the Jewish Messiah — the Christ — would actually reach out to non-Jewish nations and indwell non-Jewish people — that he would actually live in them and give them the promise of Abraham, the hope of glory in the kingdom of God with all the saints.
But now the mystery is being revealed and Paul is proclaiming Christ and teaching everywhere that the indwelling of the Messiah and the hope of the glory of God belong to all who trust Christ and really hope in the glory of God (Colossians 1:4, 23).
“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 word.”
Verse 25 simply says that this proclamation of Christ is the fulfilling of a stewardship that God has given to Paul to spread God’s Word. He is a servant of the church and a steward of God. His charge is to take the word of God to the nations, offer them the hope of glory, and call them to faith. And so he is a minister of the church by gathering God’s chosen ones from among the nations, and by teaching and admonishing them so that they can be presented complete in Christ.
Verse 24 says that this ministry of extending the mystery of Christ and the hope of glory to the nations, and then admonishing and teaching them, involves suffering. “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.”
“Fill Up What Is Lacking?”
Now what does this mean that when Paul suffers for the church — extending the hope of glory to more and more people, and teaching them about the mystery of Christ, and suffering in doing this — he is “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”? How can any man fill up what is surely as full as any suffering could be?
The Context Suggests the Meaning
I think the context that we just looked at suggests that Paul’s sufferings fill up Christ’s not by adding anything to their worth, but by extending them to the people they were meant to bless. What is lacking in the afflictions of Christ is not that they are deficient in worth or merit, as though they could not sufficiently cover the sins of all who believe. What is lacking is that the infinite value of Christ’s afflictions are not known in the world. They are still a mystery — hidden — to most peoples. And God’s intention is that the mystery be revealed, extended to all the Gentiles. So 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 word. And those ministers of the word fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ by extending them to others.
Similar Words 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 [fill up] what was deficient [lacking] in your service to me.” Now in the original the phrase “completing what was deficient” 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? 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)
How We “Fill Up What Is Lacking” in Christ’s Afflictions
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.
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.
“We are to make the afflictions of Christ real for people by the afflictions we experience in offering him to them.”
“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’s 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.
Paul’s Joy in This Calling
And Paul says he rejoices in that. 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. 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. We choose broken cisterns that can hold no water and reject the spring of water whose waters never fail (Isaiah 58:11).
The happiest people in the world are the people who know the mystery of Christ in them, the hope of glory, satisfying their deep longings and freeing them to extend the sufferings of Christ through their own to the world.
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.
I just heard a memorable way of saying this from the Romanian pastor and mission leader Joseph Tson. He said, “Christ’s cross was for propitiation; ours is for propagation.” That is, Christ suffered to accomplish salvation; we suffer to spread salvation. And our willingness to endure hardship for the good of others is a filling up of Christ’s afflictions because it extends them to others and makes them visible.
The Story of an Indigenous Indian Missionary
While I was working on the missions book in May, I had an opportunity to hear J. Oswald Sanders speak. His message touched deeply on suffering. He is 89 years old and still travels and speaks around the world. He has 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.
The Story of a Masai Warrior Named Joseph
One of the least likely men to attend the Itinerant Evangelists’ Conference in Amsterdam sponsored by the Billy Graham Association was a Masai Warrior named Joseph. But his story won him a hearing with Dr. Graham himself. The story is told by Michael Card.
One day Joseph, who was walking along one of these hot, dirty African roads, met someone who shared the gospel of Jesus Christ with him. Then and there he accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior. The power of the Spirit began transforming his life; he was filled with such excitement and joy that the first thing he wanted to do was return to his own village and share that same Good News with the members of his local tribe.
Joseph began going from door-to-door, telling everyone he met about the cross [suffering!] of Jesus and the salvation it offered, expecting to see their faces light up the way his had. To his amazement the villagers not only didn’t care, they became violent. The men of the village seized him and held him to the ground while the women beat him with strands of barbed wire. He was dragged from the village and left to die alone in the bush.
Joseph somehow managed to crawl to a water hole, and there, after days of passing in and out of consciousness, he found the strength to get up. He wondered about the hostile reception he had received from people he had known all his life. He decided he must have left something out or told the story of Jesus incorrectly. After rehearsing the message he had first heard, he decided to go back and share his faith once more.
“Christ suffered to accomplish salvation; we suffer to spread salvation.”
Joseph limped into the circle of huts and began to proclaim Jesus. “He died for you, so that you might find forgiveness and come to know the living God” he pleaded. Again he was grabbed by the men of the village and held while the women beat him reopening wounds that had just begun to heal. Once more they dragged him unconscious from the village and left him to die.
To have survived the first beating was truly remarkable. To live through the second was a miracle. Again, days later, Joseph awoke in the wilderness, bruised, scarred — and determined to go back.
He returned to the small village and this time, they attacked him before he had a chance to open his mouth. As they flogged him for the third and probably the last time, he again spoke to them of Jesus Christ, the Lord. Before he passed out, the last thing he saw was that the women who were beating him began to weep.
This time he awoke in his own bed. The ones who had so severely beaten him were now trying to save his life and nurse him back to health. The entire village had come to Christ.
This is one vivid example of what Paul meant when he said, “I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body.”
There is something profoundly freeing and stabilizing to know that Christ calls us to sacrifice for the sake of the gospel. It stabilizes us from being thrown off guard when it comes. And it frees us to choose it when love beckons us.
And it begins to free us from the incredible seduction of American prosperity.
A Story of Sacrificial Giving in Haiti
It is almost impossible for Americans to come to terms with Jesus’s commendation of the widow who “out of her poverty put in all the living that she had” (Luke 21:4). He actually praised her. He didn’t accuse her of irresponsibility. He praised her sacrifice for the cause of God. To see this spirit fleshed out, we may have to leave America and go elsewhere. Stanford Kelly illustrates it from Haiti.
The church was having a Thanksgiving festival and each Christian was invited to bring a love offering. One envelope from a Haitian man named Edmund held $13 cash. That amount was three months’ income for a working man there. Kelly was as surprised as those counting a Sunday offering in the United States might be to get a $6,000 cash gift. He looked around for Edmund, but couldn’t see him.
Later Kelly met him in the village and questioned him. He pressed him for an explanation and found that Edmund had sold his horse in order to give the $13 gift to God for the sake of the Gospel. But why hadn’t he come to the festival? He hesitated and didn’t want to answer.
Finally Edmund said, “I had no shirt to wear.”
What we are seeing in these weeks is that God is calling us to prepare to suffer, not only because of the moral effects of purification and refining, and not only because of the intimacy factor of going deeper with Jesus and knowing him better, but also because what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ must be filled up by those who take those sufferings to the world and show the loving sacrifice of Christ through the loving sacrifices of his people.