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In Colossians 1:24, I read:

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 (ESV)

I'm very confused by this verse. Does Paul here consider Christ's afflictions lacking in some way? It seems so, but in what way? And how does Paul's own suffering make up for this lacking?

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8 Answers 8

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I think it is important that he doesn't say something like "what is lacking in the atonement of Christ" or even "in the cross of Christ" but "what is lacking in the suffering of Christ." Here's the most relevant portion of what Calvin says on this verse:

We know that there is so great a unity between Christ and his members, that the name of Christ sometimes includes the whole body, as in 1 Corinthians 12:12, for while discoursing there respecting the Church, he comes at length to the conclusion, that in Christ the same thing holds as in the human body. As, therefore, Christ has suffered once in his own person, so he suffers daily in his members, and in this way there are filled up those sufferings which the Father hath appointed for his body by his decree. Here we have a second consideration, which ought to bear up our minds and comfort them in afflictions, that it is thus fixed and determined by the providence of God, that we must be conformed to Christ in the endurance of the cross, and that the fellowship that we have with him extends to this also.

He adds, also, a third reason—that his sufferings are advantageous, and that not merely to a few, but to the whole Church. He had previously stated that he suffered in behalf of the Colossians, and he now declares still farther, that the advantage extends to the whole Church. This advantage has been spoken of in Philippians 1:12. What could be clearer, less forced, or more simple, than this exposition, that Paul is joyful in persecution, because he considers, in accordance with what he writes elsewhere, that we must carry about with us in our body the mortification of Christ, that his life may be manifested in us? (2 Corinthians 4:10)

Citations of two of the editions of his commentary:

John Calvin and John Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 164-65.

This edition may also be found online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

Joseph Haroutunian and Louise Pettibone Smith, Calvin: Commentaries (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1958), 208. Quote can be found in "chapter IV: The Christian Life," under heading #2 entitled "Christian Warfare" on page 208.

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@JonEricson I've added two potential places where this quote can be found. The translation differences are negligible - the same quote is contained in both resources. Let me know if this is poor form to add two "potential sources." –  Daи Feb 11 '13 at 7:10
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@Dan O'Day: That was very helpful. I also found the earlier edition is online and provided a link. Thanks! –  Jon Ericson Feb 11 '13 at 17:34

24 I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.

I have always been confused by the notion of redemptive suffering. What is there that is redemptive in the pain associated with bone cancer, or the grief associated with loosing a young child to a senseless act of violence.

The suffering that Jesus endured was first and foremost of his own choosing. For a cause. Jesus stood up to the forces of tyranny and oppression and said no. I will not participate in this corrupt system of injustice. It is not right that your laws, and your practices keep so many people in bondage. It is demoralizing and dehumanizing. Jesus said, "Caesar is not God, and Rome is not the Kingdom of heaven." Jesus spoke truth to power, was a faithful witness to God's justice even unto death. But, Jesus was not successful. He was killed, and Rome continued in it's oppression. This would have been the end of it, and Christ's suffering would have been for naught, except for the fact that his actions inspired people like Paul to take up the cause of justice and mercy, and to be faithful witnesses even unto death. Paul suffered persecution for the sake of Christ, and for the sake of the church. Adding to, and making more effective the work begun by Christ. I would argue however, that cause; that work is never complete. The battle against injustice continues on, until that promised day, when lion shall lie down with lamb; and justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Every time someone speaks truth to power, stands up to the oppressor, is willing to be a faithful witness, even unto death, they are bringing to perfection what was lacking in Christ's afflictions. This is resurrection. This is salvation. Gandhi, MLK, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela... each of these participated in ushering in the kingdom, and changed the world for the better...

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Could Paul not be alluding to something far deeper than 'that which is lacking' - so called - in Christ's finished and perfect Blood Sacrifice, which we believe He has accomplished once and for all?

Could 'that which is lacking' be none other than that which remains unsanctified and unreconciled to this factual reality, in us, His people (the Ecclesia or The Body of Christ) - experiencially?

Where in this sense alone, we can see the 'Suffering Christ' in all of us, as in 'that which is lacking in Christ', of what is yet to be appropriated by faith, in the redemption and maturation of Christ, in us and as us - in actuality?

Could this not be the very same future expectation (lacking) of 'Christ in you that is the hope of Glory'(See Col.1.27), as we activate our obedience and Faith?

Furthermore, could this not also be where the whole of creation groans (Suffers), waiting to be set free from slavery to corruption, into the glory of the children of God (the Victorious and Glorified embodiment of Christ) (See Rom.8.17.23)?

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I think it is helpful to consider a somewhat parallel verse, Gal 6:2, where Paul writes, "Bear the burdens of one another, and thus fulfill the law of Christ." The term fulfill (anapleroo) carries the idea of filling up something that is otherwise incomplete. At the same time, the burden-bearing in view has Christ as its primary exemplar; it is Christ "who loved me and gave Himself up for me" (Gal 2:20).

But this law of Christ still needs to be "filled" or "fulfilled." Why? Because those who have been baptized into Christ have been clothed with Him (Gal 3:27), and thus take on His identity, as it were. (In 2:20, Paul goes so far as to say that he himself no longer lives, but Christ lives in him.) This relationship therefore implies that those who belong to Christ must take up His pattern, which was a pattern of being led by the Spirit into a service of love to others——a service that, both for Christ and for us, entails suffering.

Given all this, it should be clear that Paul is not saying that Christ's suffering for the Church were inadequate. Rather more likely, he is saying that his own sufferings are sufferings on the Church's behalf. In his own flesh, Paul is living out the call of the Church to participate in Christ's sufferings (compare Phi 3:10; cf 1 Pet 4:13).

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"And I rejoice in the sufferings that are for your sake and I fill up the want of sufferings of The Messiah in my flesh for the sake of his body, which is the church" Aramaic Bible in Plain English (©2010)

Might I offer a humble suggestion that Paul speaks of a deficiency of suffering in himself compared with the immense sufferings Christ took on. In following Christ's example we have an unfathomable quota of suffering we would have to fill up before exhausting His example to us in suffering for one another. So now he rejoices to take them on for the sake of the Colossians, as Christ took them on for the sake of his body, the church.

In order for there to be a deficiency there must be a standard. Christ is the standard to which we measure ourselves. He can have no deficiency!

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Thank you for the answer. Certainly that translation suggests a different meaning than the usual translations. Food for thought. –  Jon Ericson Feb 19 '13 at 17:17

The various options are:

A. Paul's sufferings serve to atone for the sins of the Church

B. Paul's sufferings serve to bring to mind the price paid by Christ, who suffered so that the Church would be reconciled to God.

C. Paul's sufferings serve to fill up the suffering that all apostles need to bear, Christ-like sufferings.

In this article , Prof N T Wright suggests that these sufferings are a reminder of the price God paid for the Church's reconcilitation, ie., Idea B:

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Third, this reading of 5:21 has tied it in quite tightly, I think, to the whole argument of chaps. 3-5. This suggests to me that, although of course the first half of chap. 6 grows organically out of just this conclusion, it is misleading to treat 5:19 as though it were the conclusion of the long preceding argument and 5:20 as though it were the start of the new one. When it is read in the way I have suggested, 5:20-21 forms the natural climax to the entire argument of the preceding three chapters, with 6:1 being the point where Paul turns to address a specific appeal to the Corinthians. They have, after all, already been reconciled to God (5:20);15 now they need to be urged not to receive this grace in vain (6:1). Moreover, they now have a significant new motive to heed this appeal: the one who speaks is not simply an odd, shabby, battle-scarred jailbird, but one who, however surprisingly, is a revelation in person of the covenant faithfulness of God.

If you read the full article, you will notice that the passage from the Book of Colossians has not been taken into account.

If we are to take up our cross just as Christ did, what happens?

Jesus said that unless a seed died, it could not grow. Picking up the cross is that dying: to self. Saying what God says is picking up the cross. Doing what God is doing is picking up the cross.

John 14:10 NET Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you, I do not speak on my own initiative, but the Father residing in me performs his miraculous deeds.

What happens is that we grow, rise up, become alive, like the seed that has been buried.

But the ”we” is the Body of Christ.

2 Corinthians 4:11-12 NET For we who are alive are constantly being handed over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our mortal body. As a result, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

Maybe Wright is okay with Idea A as well:

Quote

What the whole passage involves, then, is the idea of the covenant ambassador, who represents the one for whom he speaks in such a full and thorough way that he actually becomes the living embodiment of his sovereign — or perhaps, in the light of 4:7-18 and 6:1-10, we should equally say the dying embodiment. Once this is grasped as the meaning of 5:21, it appears that this meaning fits very well with the graphic language of those other passages, especially 4:10-12. This in turn should play back into our understanding of chap. 3: the paradoxical boldness which Paul displays in addressing the Corinthians is organically related to his self-understanding as the “minister of the new covenant,” the one who has “become the righteousness of God.” Indeed, we can now suggest that those two phrases are mutually interpretative ways of saying substantially the same thing.

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James 2 v24 says the promise which God made to Abraham in Genesis 16 was fulfilled in Genesis 22 when he offered Isaac. Only when Abraham suffered the anguish of laying down his son was the scripture fulfilled. Like Abraham we fulfil scripture - bring it to fullness - when we act on it in faith. Until then it is just words. Perhaps in Colossians 1 Paul is saying that he is filling up (fulfilling) what was lacking in his own Christian life. He is becoming a fuller imitator of Christ as he suffers for the church.

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Hi Steve and welcome to the site. This looks like the start of a useful answer, but I wonder if I can persuade you to expand on it a bit. For instance, I wonder if the Greek word translated "filling up" in Colossians 1:24 is the same as the word in James 2:23. (I assume that's the verse you mean.) Feel free to edit this answer. Thanks! –  Jon Ericson Jan 2 '13 at 22:15

Col 1:24 Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church:

The KJ is more comfortable: what lacks are the afflictions of Christ in Paul's flesh. He has not yet had what he is going to get. He is taking the brunt of it so that others in the church don't have to.

v25 implies that his own sacrifice of his flesh is one of the marks of a minister of the gospel.

Col 1:25 Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God;

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I wish this answer got more attention. It's quite good and concise. –  swasheck Feb 11 '13 at 22:50

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