“The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 99)
On the face of it, Colossians 1:24 strikes me as potentially the most heretical statement in the entire New Testament. Here Paul not only states that he is rejoicing in what he suffers on behalf of these early Christians (strange enough), but even goes so far as to claim that by means of such a Spirit-filled encounter he is actually filling up what is lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions for his body, the church! Is the sacrifice of the fully human and fully divine Jesus not enough to bring sinners back to God? In his commentary, Peter O’Brien predictably points out that “this verse has been an exegetical crux since earliest times…” (Colossians, p. 75). What are the possibilities for interpretation with regards to this bizarre passage?
One thing is irrefutably clear and, fortunately enough, enjoys unanimous consent among biblical theologians today. Paul did not intend to communicate that the atoning, vicarious sufferings of Jesus on the cross were incomplete, inadequate or insufficient in any way with respect to wiping out the sins of his people. A brief scan through the relevant passages on the crucifixion in Paul’s letters—including the rest of Colossians itself (1:14, 19-23, 2:13-15—establishes this point with abundant clarity.
Three rival interpretations would seem to be the primary contenders in ascertaining the significance of Colossians 1:24. The first can be labeled the typological view. On this reading, Paul is saying that his sufferings are profoundly similar to (even connected with) Jesus’ own sufferings, and that Jesus’ afflictions were a type or prefigurement of what his followers would be called upon to endure later on after his ascension into heaven. This understanding is orthodox as far as it goes, but it fails to make much sense of the context here. To say that Christians now participate in the sufferings of Christ (Philippians 3:10) is accurate, but by no means suffices to explain either how Christ’s afflictions could be “lacking” or how Paul’s own non-atoning suffering could “fill up” or remedy this mysterious lack.
The second perspective—and the most popular in the contemporary literature—is the eschatological interpretation. A host of modern New Testament scholars have helpfully pointed out that an important background for Paul’s overall understanding of Christian suffering in this “already/not yet” age is found in the widespread Old Testament and Second Temple Jewish idea of the “messianic woes.” Simply put, this conceptual scheme consisted of the foreboding conviction that with the appearing of the Messiah, the world—and, in particular, the people of the Messiah—would be subjected to vast, unprecedented tribulation as the present evil age came to a halting, catastrophic close (Daniel 12:1, etc.). The metaphor of birth pangs was often employed to draw out this nuance—new life was dawning, but only through great pain and agony (Matthew 24:8, John 16:20-22, Romans 8:18-23, Galatians 4:19, Revelation 12:2). As Michael Bird notes, “The messianic woes mark the death throes of an old world ending and the birth pangs of a new world beginning.” (Colossians and Philemon, p. 65).
Furthermore, often associated with this motif was the idea of a divinely set limit or quota on the amount of suffering to be endured by God’s people before the end came (cf. Mark 13:17-20, Revelation 6:11). When this prescribed measure of affliction was “filled up” or completed, the new creation or kingdom of God would be consummated in all its satisfying luster. On this reading, then, Paul seeks to complete in his own ministry part of the sum total of tribulation that God’s people are destined to experience, in the hope that the final redemption might be ushered in and (perhaps) that other believers would be spared such suffering themselves (see 2 Corinthians 1:3-11). On the whole, I believe this interpretation is correct and makes enormous sense of the immediate context. It also fits in nicely with Paul’s larger theological vision of participation in Jesus’ suffering and death. Nevertheless, I am not persuaded that it succeeds in capturing the entire range of all that drives Paul existentially in his ministry.
In accordance with and fully supportive of this foundational eschatological understanding is what I will call the missiological interpretation of Colossians 1:24. While true that Paul’s thinking is deeply colored with apocalyptic hues, I think more is needed to apprehend the full orb of Paul’s thrust here. Frequently overlooked is that the two words “fill up” (anapleroō; the preposition anti is added to the verb in Col. 1:24) and “lacking” (husterema) are found elsewhere together in the New Testament only in Philippians 2:30. In this intriguing parallel passage Paul sets forth his beloved co-laborer in ministry, Epaphroditus, as a Christ-like example for the Philippians to imitate. It is clear from the broader correspondence that Epaphroditus has previously acted as the messenger between the Philippians and Paul. Of particular significance is that he has personally carried and delivered the Philippians’ financial contribution for Paul’s ministry back to the apostle himself (Philippians 4:10-19). What becomes plain as Paul’s warm letter unfolds is that what was “lacking” in regards to the Philippians was not the willingness or the ability to support Paul financially, but rather the opportunity to actually deliver it personally to Paul in his distant imprisonment. This “lack” Epaphroditus has “filled up” by bringing the monetary gift to Paul in the flesh. Marvin Vincent summarizes aptly:
“The gift to Paul was a gift to 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.” (Philippians and Philemon, p. 78)
Similarly, in Colossians 1:24 Paul’s point is not that the afflictions of Christ are “lacking” in atoning power or sacrificial merit, but rather that they are unknown personally and experientially to those who have never encountered Jesus in the flesh. The manner in which Paul “fills up” what is “lacking” in Jesus’ sufferings has to do not with propitiation, but rather with presentation (in the insightful language of Sam Storms). Through his voluntary sufferings on behalf of those he brings the gospel to, Paul communicates in an unmatchable way the actual living content of that gospel concerning the crucified Jesus. Could this be part of the dramatic function of Galatians 3:1—namely, that through Paul’s suffering apostolic presence and proclamation of the gospel (cf. 4:11-19), Jesus has been publicly and vividly portrayed as crucified to these ex-pagan Gentiles who were absent at Golgotha? Regardless, John Piper draws out the importance of this missiological emphasis for Colossians 1:24:
“Paul’s sufferings complete Christ’s afflictions not by adding anything to their worth, but by extending them to the people they were meant to save. What is lacking in the afflictions of Christ is not that they are deficient in worth, 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 is not known and trusted in the world. These afflictions and what they mean are still hidden to most peoples. And God’s intention is that the mystery be revealed to all the nations. So the afflictions of Christ are ‘lacking’ in the sense that they are not seen and known and loved among the nations. They must be carried by the ministers of the Word. And those ministers of the Word ‘complete’ what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ by extending them to others.” (Desiring God, p. 268)
In 2 Timothy 2:10 we see this cruciform commitment on unambiguous display. Paul writes that he “endures everything for the sake of the elect, in order that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.” As we have been witnessing time and again in this series, this theme is pervasive and unavoidable in the New Testament writings. We are called to imitate Jesus precisely in his weakness and suffering, and by so doing God continues to extend His redeeming presence to the world through His Christ-like, afflicted people:
“Paul exhibits the sufferings of Christ by suffering himself for those he is trying to win. In his sufferings they see Christ’s sufferings. Here is the astounding upshot: 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 proclaim the cross as the way to life, people will see the marks of the cross in us and feel the love of the cross from us. Our calling is to make the afflictions of Christ real for people by the afflictions we experience in bringing them the message of salvation. Since Christ is no longer on the earth, He wants His body, the church, to reveal His suffering in its suffering.” (John Piper, Desiring God)