Meditations in Colossians: 42. Suffering for the Church
Col 1:24 Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.
And so the strange, even alien, phrases continue to appear before us in Paul’s writings, phrases and concepts we are so often happy to pass by with little thought. From the great and glorious paragraphs about the gospel, salvation and the wonder of Christ, for a moment it seems, we fall back to see Paul himself again. There has been much pure doctrine in the verses we have considered but every now and then Paul himself comes to the fore: “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you,” (v.3) and “we have heard of your faith,” (v,4) and “we have not stopped praying for you,” (v.9) and “This is the gospel….and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.” (v.23) and then finally our present verse. Paul’s letter contain a lot of doctrine but also a lot of personal expression.
So he starts this verse with, “Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you.” The truth is that the Gospel never comes easily. Paul’s focus there is on what was “suffered for you.” Someone had suffered to get the Gospel to them there in Colosse and that person had been Epaphras (v.7). He had obviously brought the Gospel to them, established believers and then came under attack from the heresies of the day, so he returned to Paul in Rome (probably) for him to write this letter countering so much of the heretical teaching that had been going on. It is a battle to bring the Gospel and a battle to hold on to the truths of it. Beyond this we don’t know what Epaphras went through. We do know that it would have cost time and energy to travel so slowly from place to place, often on foot, often by sea with its perils in the Mediterranean.
When we come to the middle part of the verse we come across an idea or concept that is alien to many of us: “and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions.” Taking the latter part first, there is implied that for Christ to bring the Gospel to his world – whether in the single body during his earthly ministry, or his wider body, the church, throughout history – he (and we) will suffer afflictions. Now an affliction is simply something imposed on us from outside of us. A missionary in Africa or Asia might be afflicted with malaria. They may also be afflicted with persecution. Now I believe we may also stretch the word ‘affliction’ to include things we impose on ourselves by taking up the call to go with the Gospel, so we may speak of sacrifice of family ties, and home comforts, and the affliction of loneliness, misunderstanding and so on. These things are part of the package that goes with the Gospel being shared around the world.
Paul spoke of the things he suffered in the course of his ministry in an amazingly open outpouring: “I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” (2 Cor 11:23-28) His life and ministry may have been exceptional but these are the sort of things he refers to when he says, “I fill up in my flesh.” i.e. these are the things I have physically experienced. Read back over those verses above and see that so much of it involved physical struggles.
Modern sharing the Gospel across the world is mild by comparison. In the past when I have traveled abroad I was away from my family for up to three weeks (in a day before Skype or e-mails provided a link). In the middle of the night in Hong Kong, I suddenly became aware of the thousands of miles of rock between me and my wife as I imagined her on the other side of the globe. Sitting on a plane for ten to thirteen hours is tedious and tiring but nothing like the endeavours of Paul and his fellow apostles. When I first went east, I suffered culture shock, a relatively minor shock to the system. And then I came across some missionaries in preparation. One couple were about to make their way to Outer Mongolia where the nearest Westerners would be over five hundred miles away. As I encountered these and other similar missionaries getting ready for a life of privation, I recognized that I was in the company of a different brand of people. These were those who were giving up their lives, giving up their families, giving up their careers, to go and take the good news of Jesus to peoples who had never yet heard, and all they looked forward to was affliction! These are mighty people!
Paul finishes the verses with, “Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” Christ is in the business of growing his body so that his Father’s kingdom may be expanded and the world blessed and his Father honoured. These afflictions come and are experienced that this end may be achieved. Jesus himself was misunderstood, reviled and rejected and then crucified. These were his afflictions while he was on earth in a single body. Since then his body has received beatings and burnings, impositions and imprisonments, derision and death, and so even today in varying measures around the world, it continues. It is the cost of sharing and maintaining the Gospel.