I have a doubt about something Paul said in his letter to the Colossians. In chapter 1 verse 24, he says he is filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. No matter which way I try to read this, no part of it makes sense. Christ’s suffering was over and beyond what anyone on earth has ever suffered. Also, it was complete — the Father was perfectly satisfied. How can Paul make such a claim?
In the passage from Colossians referred to in the question, Paul is talking about the ministry he received from the Lord. He had two kinds of ministries to fulfil. He had the ministry of the gospel (Colossians 1:23) and he also had the ministry of the church (vv. 24-25). These involved the ministries of evangelism and edification. Through evangelism, souls are brought to the Lord, and through the ministry of edification, such saved ones are edified and perfected. These works for the Lord involve sufferings of various kinds. It is these sufferings in life and ministry that Paul is referring to in Colossians 1:24.
Paul says, “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God which was given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God, the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints” (vv.24-26). Paul had the stewardship of the mysteries of spiritual truths, which he fulfilled faithfully with many sufferings.
Paul had the stewardship of the mysteries of spiritual truths, which he fulfilled faithfully with many sufferings
As Paul narrates his sufferings, it may seem like he was saying that the sufferings of Jesus Christ was in some way deficient and that he was undergoing his sufferings in order to complete it. Then the question becomes: in what way were the sufferings of Christ deficient? How could the apostle share in it and fulfil it? Definitely, in the question we are now dealing with, this confusion is expressed. The right understanding of the sufferings of Christ is essential for clarity on the passage.
The sufferings of Christ may be divided into at least three groups: the personal sufferings, the anticipatory sufferings and the sufferings of atonement.
The personal sufferings are all that Jesus suffered as the righteous One living in an unrighteous world. He faced such troubles right from the time of His birth. He was laid in a manger. His parents had to flee with Him to Egypt. It is likely His foster father Joseph passed away early and the burden of the upkeep of the family fell on Him. During His public ministry, He was always hounded by the Jewish leaders and other opposers of His ministry. All these were His personal sufferings.
Then there were the anticipatory sufferings. This is the grief He bore looking forward to the cross. We see Him groaning in the Spirit, thinking of the hour of the cross (John 12:27). In the garden of Gethsemane, He agonised and was near to death. These He underwent in anticipation of the cross.
Finally, the sufferings He underwent on the cross were for the atonement of the sins of all humanity. He bore them as the sinless One, for all of sinful humanity. Only He could bear this. That was the purpose of His coming. And He fully bore the sufferings for atonement. Nothing of these sufferings was left behind for anybody else to fulfil. When the Lord uttered from the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30), it meant that the sufferings for atonement were fully borne. The epistle to the Hebrews also attests this truth. It says, “When He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:3).
When the Lord uttered from the cross, “It is finished”, it meant that the sufferings for atonement were fully borne
There are no sufferings left behind for anybody to suffer for the sins of the world. If at all any fraction of it was left behind, no human would have been able to bear it, as none are sinless.
The above discussion, therefore, leads us to the question of the kind of sufferings that Paul said Jesus left behind, which he himself suffered. These refer to the sufferings he underwent for Christ’s sake or for the gospel’s sake.
When Christ was on the earth, He reached out to the people with the gospel and He suffered for it. Now, He is in heaven and none can inflict sufferings upon Him. But His body, the church, is on earth. She is suffering now for the Lord’s sake — what He would have suffered were He now on earth.
Each believer has a share in this, in one way or the other. When a Christian suffers for the Lord, he then is suffering what Christ has left behind for him to suffer as part of the body, the church. Thus the sufferings are for the body’s sake. These were the sufferings that Paul underwent. His life should challenge us to be a partaker of these sufferings.
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