“Now I rejoice in my suffering for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, that is, the church…” (Colossians 1:24)
Last week in our study through the Book of Colossians, we encountered a phrase that has been somewhat controversial in our efforts to interpret it through the years. There is no commonly agreed upon understanding of Paul’s words.
Through the years, the Catholic Church has used this as a springboard for understanding the teaching of purgatory. The doctrine of a “place” where Christians go after death to “complete their sufferings” before being suited for Heaven is one that Protestant scholars and pastors have long rejected.
So if that’s not what Paul was saying, what did he mean by “filling up Christ’s afflictions?” And what does this say about the reasons we suffer?
- It could be a direct reference to the prophecy spoken over Paul at his conversion when Ananias told him that he would suffer many things because of the name of Christ. This was certainly true as we read some of Paul’s more personal sections of testimony and the difficulties he encountered.
- Some believe this is a reference to a teaching championed by the Jews that God would only permit so much persecution and suffering by His chosen people before the end (apocalypse) came. The more suffering, the sooner God would bring judgement to the world. This teaching is spelled out more fully in the apocryphal books (the intertestamental) books that we do not accept as authoritative parts of the Bible.
- It is certainly possible that this is a reference to the fact that our suffering in our bodies has a direct connection to Christ suffering with us. Jesus is seen as connected intimately to His body on earth, so that every slight, every pain suffered, every effort of persecution was felt by Jesus as well. As His people suffer, so Christ suffered.
- It is not a reference to somehow completing something lacking in Christ’s sacrifice and atonement for us. Christ suffered completely, and alone on the cross. We cannot add to the pain inflicted on Jesus on the cross by our sufferings in the present. We are not assisting in the atonement by suffering.
Paul’s use of the word “affliction” is never tied to any reference to Christ’s atoning work at the cross.
- It is absolutely true that the sufferings endured by believers “fill up, complete or round out” the reflection of Jesus in the Christian’s life. Every portrait ever drawn or painted has areas of light and areas of darkness. Both are necessary for a complete picture to be seen. Both sorrow and joy are necessary for the “portrait” of Jesus to be seen in our lives.
Maybe more than any other interpretation #5 seems to make the most sense to me. Our suffering as believers is necessary for the image of Christ to be etched into our lives. Christ is seen fully in our joy and in our tears. We can rejoice in our suffering knowing that, even then, Christ is more fully seen in us and through us as the Body of Christ, the visible representation of Christ, on earth.
And so, with Paul, we can rejoice even in our suffering, knowing that none is in vain; none of wasted, and nothing is random. God always sees to that!