As I mentioned when we first began studying Colossians a few weeks ago, one of the extraordinary things about this letter is that Paul has never visited this church. He has only heard about these believers because of Epaphras’ report—and again, in all likelihood Epaphras came to faith because of Paul’s preaching ministry and subsequently planted this church. Yet despite not having met these brothers and sisters, Paul is passionate for them and for their faith in Christ. Though we’ve already seen hints of this passion, Paul’s zeal is once again front and center in this morning’s passage.
He begins by making what I think are some unusual statements. In the first half of verse 24 he says that he is rejoicing in what he is suffering for the Colossians. What is he referring to? Are all believers called to rejoice when they suffer? And how is it that he’s suffering specifically for the Colossians? The second half of the verse doesn’t help us out much. In fact it only adds to the confusion for Paul states that he fills up in his flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions—and that this is for the sake of Christ’s body, namely the church.
I’ll start with the easier part—Paul’s rejoicing in what he is suffering for the Colossians. This isn’t rejoicing in suffering for the sake of suffering. It isn’t the idea that suffering is redemptive or that it qualifies us to become Christians or somehow makes us better Christians. In point of fact, whether we are believers or not, suffering is part of our lot in life as we live in a world marked by the effects of the Fall. But taken in context Paul’s words make sense. When we began our study in Colossians, I mentioned that Paul was writing this letter from prison—and it’s probably his imprisonment in Rome. What I didn’t mention was that the reason for Paul’s imprisonment was that he was proclaiming the gospel. As a result of preaching the truth about who Christ is and what he has done, Paul was put in prison. And yet the fruit of Paul’s suffering and imprisonment is that it led to the conversion of others. It’s in this sense that Paul can rejoice in his suffering for the Colossians. The fact that this church exists is because God used Paul’s courage and subsequent suffering to extend the message of the gospel to others. In a sense Paul is assuring the Colossians that given that they are now believers, his suffering was worth it!
But the next part of what Paul says in verse 24 is a little more difficult to make sense of: “I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions.” What in the world might Paul mean by this? At first blush he seems to be saying that Christ’s afflictions were somehow incomplete and so needed further suffering by others—including Paul—to come to completion. But this interpretation would completely contradict Paul’s emphasis on the sufficiency of Christ’s death and resurrection. As we’ve already seen in Colossians 1:12–14, through Christ believers are qualified to share in the inheritance that is their due; through Christ believers have been rescued from the dominion of darkness and brought into the Son’s kingdom. In him we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. And again in 1:20 Paul says that through Christ, God has reconciled to himself all things—in both earth and heaven—by making peace through Christ’s blood, shed on the cross. So clearly Paul believes in the sufficiency of Christ’s death to atone for the sins of all for whom he died. Paul’s “filling up in [his] flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions” can’t mean that Christ’s redeeming work is somehow ineffective or incomplete or lacking apart from Paul’s suffering.
A better way to understand what Paul is saying is that he is indicating and acknowledging that believers—those who are disciples of Christ—those who are followers of Christ may at some point have to suffer for being his followers. In other words, suffering may enter our lives due to our identifying with him. If Jesus Christ wasn’t spared suffering during his time on earth, neither should we expect to be spared. What Paul is expressing here is something that Jesus forewarns his disciples of in John 15:18–20:
18 If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. 20 Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.
It is in this sense of suffering—as a result of his being a faithful follower of Christ—that Paul is “filling up” in his “flesh” what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s affliction. As Christ died to deliver us from our bondage to sin—from our bondage to doing things our way rather than God’s ways that we might be free to know, love, and serve God—so, too, those who proclaim Christ’s atonement may find themselves suffering as well. This message of our needing to turn from our self-serving ways to be reconciled to and serve the God who loves and made us in his image is not one everyone wants to hear. And proclaiming it may result in our suffering even as he did. So what Paul speaks of as “lacking” in Christ’s afflictions was the future suffering of all who, like Paul, experience great affliction for the sake of the gospel. But again Paul could rejoice in what he suffered because these afflictions were suffered for the sake of Christ’s body, the church, even as Jesus endured all of his suffering for the sake of his body—his bride—his church.
In verse 25, Paul goes on to state that he has become the servant of Christ’s church by the commission God gave him to present his word in its fullness. Why might Paul be making this point of God’s commissioning him? Well, for one, as we’ve already noted Paul has never been to this church. And if he hasn’t been to this church then this means that they don’t know him personally. Paul is underscoring here what he stated in the opening verse of the chapter where he introduced himself by referring to himself as “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” Though not one of the original twelve apostles of Jesus, Paul is an apostle called by God. Listen to what he has to say about his apostleship in I Corinthians 15. After stating that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and raised—all according to the Scriptures—he states that Christ then
5…appeared to Cephas, [or Peter] and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time….7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
We can see why a church might need some convincing of Paul’s credentials given that not only was he not appointed as an apostle while Jesus was alive but also he actively persecuted Christ’s church after Christ’s death and resurrection. So Paul is making clear that he is Christ’s apostle by God’s will and commissioning both in the opening of the letter and here. And we may be starting to get a glimpse into why Paul wrote this letter—to counter false teachers who are trying to lead the Colossian believers astray. So Paul needs to establish that he is a true apostle. He is one who is sent—by God—to proclaim the Good news of who Christ is and what he has done.
Specifically Paul has been commissioned to present God’s word in its fullness. The “fullness” he speaks of probably means that the word of God has been brought to completion or its intended purpose. It is fulfilled in that it has been proclaimed and received by faith by the Colossian believers, thus achieving its purpose. Paul views himself as a divinely commissioned steward or administrator (oikonomos), a word used widely in the Roman world for the administrator of a large household or estate. So in tying verses 24 and 25 together, we can say that the “filling up” of Christ’s afflictions has taken place as the proclamation of God’s word has been made “fully known” not only among the Colossians but also as it is increasing and bearing fruit throughout that part of the world as Paul states in verse 6.
In verse 26 Paul further teases out the nature of God’s word with which he’s been commissioned. He says that it is a “mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people.” Now what do you think of when you hear the word “mystery”? If we say a person is “mysterious” or an event is a “mystery,” doesn’t it usually carry the sense that we don’t understand something or perhaps don’t know why or how something has happened? It’s a mystery. Isn’t a mystery something that is unclear? Yet Paul equates the Word of God in its fullness with the mystery that is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. So what is going on here?
When we think of Scripture—of the Old and New Testament communications God has given us—we need to realize that though the Old Testament is Scripture just as much as the New Testament is Scripture, nonetheless, what the Old Testament discloses or communicates about God isn’t as complete as what the New Testament teaches. This is what theologians refer to as “progressive revelation” or the idea that as we move—as we progress—from the Old Testament to the New, we learn more about God and his plans. God discloses, he reveals more about himself and his plans for humanity as we move from the Old to the New. So as we saw last week, though God spoke to his people in the Old Testament by means of speech and visions and other manifestations of himself, by the time we arrive at the New Testament, we see God communicating not by a partial revelation of words or visions but a full revelation of himself in the person of Jesus Christ. This mystery of God incarnate—of God the Spirit taking on human form, human flesh and blood—in order to save his people is the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations. In the Old Testament this mystery was there in prophecy, but not in actuality; it was there in promise, but not in fulfillment. But now, in the fullness of time, the fullness of God has been disclosed in the salvation Christ brings. Listen to what Peter has to say in the first chapter of his first epistle:
10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, 11 trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. 12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.
Not only the prophets but even the angels longed to understand these Old Testament revelations. But these mysteries that were presented in part to the Old Testament prophets by means of Christ’s Spirit in them have now come to fruition and been disclosed in Christ’s coming to earth and living, dying, and rising for us and for our salvation.
So as Paul speaks of mystery, it is mystery in the sense of the purpose of God that is unknown to humans except by revelation—except by God’s disclosing it. Unlike popular pagan religions that used the term “mystery” to refer to secret information available only to an exclusive group, Paul proclaims that the Christian mystery isn’t secret knowledge for a few but is rather a revelation of divine truths—once hidden but now openly proclaimed. It is mystery not in the sense of mysterious or a secret ritual but as God’s unfolding plan for the world and, above all, his plan of redemption through the Messiah. Although portions of God’s mystery were made known through the Old Testament prophets, key aspects of this mystery were kept hidden for ages and generations until they were revealed by God to his New Testament apostles. This mystery of salvation in Christ—for both Gentiles and Jews—was formerly concealed but has now been made known.
At the end of verse 26 in Colossians 1, Paul uses the phrase, “the Lord’s people” which Jewish believers would have automatically understood as applying to them. But here Paul—that apostle to the Gentiles (Rom. 11:13; Gal. 2:8)—is using “the Lord’s people” in a way that includes the Gentiles or the non-Jewish believers. It’s interesting that though from the beginning God promised Abraham that he would make a nation from him and that all the nations of the world would one day be blessed through him (Gen. 12:1–3), this truth was slow in being grasped by believing Jews—and Jewish–Gentile relations is a theme often addressed in the New Testament letters. The Old Testament contains this mysterious promise of God’s salvation being offered not only to his people, the nation of Israel of whom Abraham was head, but to all people; the New Testament contains the disclosure of this mystery in Christ’s coming and actually giving his Holy Spirit—at Pentecost and following—not only to Jewish believers in Christ but to all people from all nations who call upon Christ’s name. Paul makes this connection clear in stating in verse 27 that “to them”—to the “Lord’s people”—God has chosen to make known the glorious riches of this mystery “among the Gentiles.” With the coming of Christ God now indwells even Gentiles to whom God’s word had not been previously revealed and they have been received as God’s people on equal footing with Jewish believers.
Next Paul highlights the content of “the glorious riches of this mystery” namely “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” What might this mean? Paul is telling us—is disclosing to us—is unveiling for us—a wonderful mystery here—that of Christ in us. Yet how is Christ in us? The answer is by means of his Holy Spirit. Paul is helping us understand how our loving and faithful triune God has chosen to make us his own. We’ve already talked in previous weeks about the connection between Jesus Christ and God the Father—it’s a relationship that is so close that to see Christ is to see the Father. Well, so too, is the relationship between Christ and the Holy Spirit. In chapters 14–16 of the Gospel of John, Jesus teaches his disciples about the Holy Spirit; about how important it is that Jesus leave them—in other words that he die and rise again—because unless he leaves, the Comforter or Advocate, the Holy Spirit, won’t be able to come. Soon after saying to Phillip in John 14:9 that if he’s seen him he’s seen the Father, Jesus says to the rest of his disciples in verses 16–17
16…I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—17 the Spirit of truth.
And again in verse 26
But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.
And in 15:26–27
26 When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me. 27 And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.
Do you see the inter-relationships and oneness of purpose between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit highlighted in these verses? When the crucified and risen Christ ascended to be with his Father, he sent his Holy Spirit to apply the work of salvation he had accomplished to his believers. Jesus went from being external to his disciples during the time of his Incarnation to being internal within them by means of his Holy Spirit. This is what Paul is speaking about when he refers to “the glorious riches of this mystery…Christ in you” which has been made known even among the Gentiles. And as we learned last week, the hope spoken of here is a solid hope. It is a hope whose foundation is none other than the word and work of God himself. It is a hope—a promise—the certainty that though we may now see him as through a mirror darkly, one day we will see him face to face; though now we may only know him part, one day we will know him fully even as we are fully known (I Cor. 13); one day we will see God in his glory—one day we will see him as he truly is.
Paul ends this portion of his letter in verse 28 by stating that this Christ is the one he—and Timothy—and all followers of Christ—proclaim as Paul admonishes and teaches everyone with all wisdom so that he might “present everyone fully mature in Christ.” This is the goal. To this end, verse 29, he strenuously contends with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in him.
Brothers and sisters, how appropriate it is to be considering the mystery of Christ revealed as we soon turn to celebrating his supper in the taking of the communion elements.
As we partake of the bread, the body of Christ, we are reminded of his love for us that was so great that he allowed his sinless body to suffer and be broken for us;
As we partake of the juice, the blood of Christ, we are reminded that no matter how great our sins have been or may still be, unlike the Old Testament sacrifice of animals which was a temporary covering, Christ’s blood is sufficient to cover all of our sins past, all of our sins present, all of our future sins;
As we celebrate our Father’s forgiveness represented in the elements and the sacrifice of his Son, we are reminded as well that for all who have turned to him, he has also given us his Holy Spirit who indwells us and applies to us the forgiveness and mercy he so readily extends to us;
As we together partake of Christ’s body and blood, we are reminded not only of the mystery that through Christ he has enabled us to commune with him, the Maker of all that exists, the Redeemer of all who turn to him, but also the mystery that Christ’s body and blood now mark us as belonging to one another for through Christ and because of Christ we have been given the Spirit of Christ so that we are now together children of our heavenly Father who seek to become fully mature in Christ.
Let us pray….