Paul moves from explaining justification and his role in spreading the gospel into how his commission as an apostle applies personally to the Colossians. He tells them his suffering in prison is ultimately for their sake as it is part of living for the gospel. As gospel believers we share in Christ’s suffering – it is part of identifying with Him. Along with the suffering however, we have HIM. When we become His follower we become a part of His body and He indwells us. This, along with the hope that awaits us in the next life, makes the suffering of this world worthwhile. The Christian’s life can be hard as we live in a world we are not of, but the hope of the next world and the daily communion with Jesus gives meaning to the statement to live is Christ, to die is gain.
In verse 23 Paul says that he was made a minister of the gospel. This of course refers to his conversion on the road to Damascus where God reached down and changed him from a persecutor of the church to its foremost missionary. Paul did not choose to follow Jesus, Jesus chose him. And when Jesus chose him, He said of Paul, “I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:16).
What God said would happen has in fact occurred. Paul has seen persecution and suffering virtually everywhere he has proclaimed the gospel. And he writes to the Colossians from Rome where he is imprisoned unjustly. He knows what it means to suffer for the gospel.
Interestingly, however, he says that he rejoices in his sufferings and that they are for your sake (the sake of the Colossians) and on behalf of the church (meaning the universal church, not just the church at Colossae). What this means is not entirely clear (and there are numerous interpretations), but two explanations (in tandem) seem to make sense. His sufferings are for the sake of the Colossians and all believers because they go hand in hand with spreading the gospel. He suffers as a result of obeying his gospel commission, and obeying that commission benefits all who have heard or will hear the gospel. Secondly, his sufferings enable him to more fully identify with Christ and unite with Him. So he rejoices over what enables the gospel to be proclaimed and what unites him with Christ (Rom 5:3-5).
He says something else in this verse which on the surface seems to contradict almost everything else he says in the book. He says by suffering he does his share on behalf of the church in filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. What does this mean? Is there something that Christ did not do that now has to be done by Paul to complete the gospel? Did Christ leave something unfinished?
Obviously this cannot be the case. One of the main points of this letter is to reassure the Colossians that Christ is completely sufficient and the gospel is all they need for redemption (1:13-14). So it makes no sense to suddenly go against that message, and it is not likely that he throws in a little heresy just to see if anyone notices. Acknowledging that, however, still does not explain the odd statement. How is Paul’s suffering a means to fill up something lacking in Christ’s afflictions?
Again, not everyone agrees on one interpretation. What seems to make sense is to see this as a reference to the suffering that is part of the church’s calling. The disciple of Christ has been called by Him to take up a cross like He did and follow Him. Christ has thus ordained that discipleship entails suffering, and that suffering will continue until He returns. Therefore, by suffering, the disciple begins to fill up the measure of sufferings that God has intended for His body. Christ’s afflictions were not deficient in regard to redemption, they simply were not the full measure of all suffering which will take place until the end. His afflictions continue through His body, the church (remember that He asked Paul on the road to Damascus, “Why are you persecuting ME?” – it is important to note that God is not malicious with His servants – the Son suffers in His body). So as Paul suffers, he does his share on behalf of the church in completing the preordained suffering the church must endure until it experiences the hope of the gospel.
Some of the problem in understanding this verse is the verbiage Paul chooses. To the reader it sounds like he is saying that Jesus did not finish what He should have finished. However, we know that is not his intent and it is simply a matter of him saying something in a way that sounds odd in English. From that standpoint, it is helpful to examine another passage where he uses similar verbiage. In Phil 2:30 he refers to a man named Epaphroditus who carried to Paul a gift the Philippians sent him. During the journey to Paul he almost died. Paul therefore commends him to the Philippians and tells them to hold him in high regard because he risked his life to complete what was deficient in your service to me. In saying this he does not mean the Philippians dropped the ball and did not do something they should have done. He simply means that they could not all bring the gift to him, so Epaphroditus did what the Philippians could not do. To us it sounds almost ungrateful to say they were deficient, but Paul means only that there was another step in the process that they could not complete. It is a usage issue. We might say, “Epaphroditus did what you could not do.” Paul – writing in Greek – says he completed what was deficient in your service. It is the same meaning – said in a different and at first confusing way.
Even understanding verse 24, however, it begs a fairly basic question. Why? Why is suffering so intricately associated with discipleship and proclaiming the gospel? What is the purpose of calling people to follow Christ and suffer? If my sins are paid for and I stand before God holy and blameless and beyond reproach, what is the point of suffering as I stand?
The answer lies in some of Jesus’ final words to His disciples. He said, “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me (Jn 15:18-21). The path of discipleship entails suffering because it proceeds through a sin-cursed world. The disciple lives in a world that is not his own and according to a message the world rejects. The world that crucified the Savior is not friendly to the disciples of that Savior.
Just as Christ is Christ only in virtue of His suffering and rejection, so the disciple is a disciple only insofar as he shares his Lord’s suffering and rejection and crucifixion.
(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.)
The good news for the follower of Christ, however, is that suffering is not the end of the story. Paul covers this in the next few verses.
Paul says that God made him a minister of the church. This goes along with his earlier assertion that he is a minister of the gospel. They go hand in hand and are basically synonymous. The gospel is the basis of the body of Christ, so if Paul is a minister of one he is a minister of the other. God made him a minister to carry out the preaching of the full word of God. The gospel is complete and Paul has been commissioned to proclaim it as God’s steward. He is Christ’s apostle and is responsible for overseeing the message for the sake of church.
This message is a mystery hidden from the past ages. This does not mean the gospel is some strange message no one can understand. It means that the full explanation of redemption and how God would carry it out was hidden from those who lived before Christ. They did not fully understand how God would save His people, or that His people would include Gentiles. They knew the Messiah was coming, but they did not know all that would happen. Those who hear the gospel now, however, can fully know – it has now been manifested to the saints.
The glory of this mystery – the wonderful part of the gospel – is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Here Paul unites both sides of the Christian existence. In the present, it is Christ in you. In the future it is the hope of glory (that he has referred to twice in this opening chapter – 5, 23). As believers we have both – the power and love of Christ indwelling us (what we would typically say is the Holy Spirit), and the promise of eternity spent with Him when salvation is fully realized in the next world. Peter summarizes this in his first epistle – Since He has not been revealed yet you have not seen Him, but you have an ongoing loving relationship with Him. And even though you do not see Him now, you believe in Him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, because you are attaining the goal of your faith – the salvation of your souls (I Pet 1:8-9).
Paul has already described the amazing and infinite and glorious Christ in verses 15-20. It is worth re-reading those verses and then considering that He is the one who is IN US. The One who both created and sustains all things, the One by whom all things came into being and for whom all things came into being. He is the firstborn of both creation and resurrection. It is HIS glorious might that is at our disposal (11), and who walks with us and in us – and in whom we are as part of His body. This is the One who wants to live in intimate communion with us now – in this life. This is what living in this world as His child means.
What is wonderful, however, is that the glory of the mystery does not end there. We also have the hope of glory – or what Paul referred to earlier as the hope laid up for you in heaven. Beyond this world we have an inheritance already waiting for us in the next. There will be a day when all wrongs are settled and justice is realized and we live in a world that is not sin-cursed. And in that world we will live with our Savior in physical relationship – no longer just by faith, but by sight.
This, then, gives a different perspective on the suffering Paul refers to in verse 24. God does not tell us to just go suffer and leave it at that. He tells us we will suffer as His disciples because the slave is not greater than the Master. But He then says that we will walk WITH Him as we go through the sufferings and we can see the suffering of this world through the lens of the hope that is set before us. We have the amazing and supreme and sufficient Christ IN US and we have the hope of glory BEFORE US. And even more, the suffering we endure will actually bring us into a closer relationship with Christ as we unite with Him in what He also endured. So we win no matter what happens. We suffer, but in such a way as to make our current walk more deeply satisfying as we unite with the One who ultimately suffered. And when our walk is over, we go to be with Him in a world untouched by sin. Seen this way, it makes sense that Paul says he rejoices in his suffering – right?
Paul says he proclaims Christ – the gospel – to every man. He means that he does not proclaim the gospel to just Jews or just Gentiles or just one type of person and not another. He proclaims it to everyone regardless of race or status. He uses it to warn and teach so he may present every man complete in Christ. He does not simply want professions of faith, he wants to be able to present converts to God complete in Him. They are fully steeped in the gospel and living lives completely focused on Him.
He will later say that using the gospel in this way is really the responsibility of all believers (3:16). This is not simply an apostle’s duty – all believers should be teaching and admonishing one another through the word of Christ to urge one another to completion in Christ.
Paul ends this section by saying that he labors for this purpose – to present every man complete in Christ. He labors and strives – continual and ultimate effort – to do this, but does it according to His power, which mightily works within me. This is the perfect picture of what it means to live as a disciple. Jesus said that we can do nothing apart from Him (Jn 15:5), but He did not say we are to sit back and wait for Him to act. Discipleship is both – our continual effort but according to God’s power that works within us.
Suffering is assumed to be part of the gospel experience, but along with suffering comes Christ and the hope of glory. We have Christ – the same Christ described in verses 15-20 which are so incredible – IN us and the hope of glory in FRONT of us. As we live with Christ and live with the understanding of what already exists for us in heaven, we strive in Christ’s power to live worthy of Him. He is in us and strengthens us with His mighty and infinite power, but that does not mean we do not strive in our own strength to please Him in all respects.