August 13, 2012

“What Is Lacking In Christ’s Afflictions” (Col. 1:24)

Category: Bible - NT - Colossians :: Permalink

What does Paul mean when he says “I fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of the Christ in my flesh on behalf of his body, the church” (Colossians 1:24)?

Many commentators hold the view, which I’ve heard has its origins in Richard Bauckham, that Paul is referring to “the Messianic woes,” which figure in some intertestamental Jewish thinking. The idea is that the end of the Old and the beginning of the New — the Messianic age — would be a time of great upheaval and suffering for God’s people.

Wright, and others, move from that idea to the claim that Paul thinks there’s a certain set amount of suffering (say 90,000 sufferings) and that if he bears a bunch (say 10,000 sufferings), there’ll be less for everyone else to bear. To my mind, that’s just plain weird.

Andrew Perriman and David Garland have leveled a devastating critique of this view in their respective writings. One or the other points out, among other things, that it’s not as if the Colossians would have a book of intertestamental Jewish thought from which they could learn all about “the Messianic woes.”

Nor were the “woes” a certain set amount of woes; rather, they were seen as a fixed time — and no amount of suffering on the part of one person in that time could shorten the length of time. Furthermore, Paul never talks as if his suffering means that Christians elsewhere won’t have to suffer; rather, he expects that we all share in the suffering of Christ.

I think it’s important to translate the passage correctly. Several commentators make it read “I fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, the church.” But “in my flesh” in the original Greek is wedged in between “the afflictions of the Christ” and “on behalf of his body.” 

Paul, it seems to me, is not talking about Christ’s suffering on the cross. In fact, Paul never uses the word “afflictions” to refer to Christ’s suffering on the cross, but only for our sufferings as His body. Rather, Paul is talking about “the-afflictions-of-the-Christ-in-my-flesh-on-behalf-of-his-body” — all one unit. 

One possibility, then, is that Paul is simply saying that he is going to go through all the sufferings God has appointed for him, all of which he sees as a sharing of Christ’s suffering (Phil 3). I’m not convinced of that interpretation, because I don’t think that’s how “fill up what is lacking” is used in the Bible.

Paul uses that language in two other passages. In Philippians 2, he says that Epaphroditus risked his life in order to “fill up what was lacking” in the Philippians’ service and care for Paul. In 1 Cor 16, he says something similar about two other men: they filled up “your lack” — that is, what was lacking from the Corinthians.

What does Paul mean in Philippians and Corinthians? He means that the Philippians cared for Paul, but that their care didn’t reach Paul for his benefit until Epaphroditus traveled to Paul in prison. What was lacking was their personal presence, their care in a way that actually benefited Paul.

So let’s work out the parallel:

(1) Fill up what is lacking in your service
(2) Fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions in my flesh for his body the church

In (1), filling up what is lacking means bringing the Philippians’ service (and care) to Paul so that he can benefit from it. In (2), then, filling up what is lacking means bringing Christ’s afflictions in Paul’s flesh to the church, and especially the church in Colossae, in such a way that they can benefit from them.

Paul is very conscious in his letters of his bond with Christ, of the fact that he who once was persecuting Christ by persecuting the church has now been commissioned to suffer for Christ’s sake (Acts 9). He tells people that he bears the marks of Christ in his body. He sees all of his suffering as a partnership (koinonia) in the sufferings of Christ (Phil 3).

Now, Paul is telling the Colossians that he is not only sharing in Christ’s afflictions in his own flesh, but that he is doing so in such a way that the church can benefit from them. In all his labors and struggles for them, he is sharing Christ’s sufferings. In fact, even in this letter to the Colossians, Paul is seeing to it that (like Epaphroditus bringing the care of the Philippians to benefit Paul) Christ’s afflictions in him are coming to Colossae for the benefit of the church.

In short, it seems to me that “what is lacking” is personal presence. Paul is in prison. But even in prison, he is still laboring on behalf of the church. It’s not as if he’s sharing in Christ’s afflictions all by himself and they’re not of any benefit to the church. Even this letter is one way that he’s “filling up what is lacking,” so that his suffering benefits the Colossians.

At least, that’s the current state of my thought on that phrase.

Posted by John Barach @ 6:22 pm | Discuss (0)

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