Sermon Notes 03
Colossians 1:24-2:5 comprises one of the more personal and confessional sections of the Letter to the Colossians. Paul began the letter with a claim to apostolic authority-“an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God.” (1:1)
Now, with this segment, Paul begins in earnest to exercise that claim to authority. He doesn’t do it as we might expect someone of his high profile to do, but instead speaks of his “sufferings” (v. 24), his “stewardship” (v. 25), and his “struggle.” (2:1)
These are all words which point, not to his strength, but to his weakness. But the things which some may believe disqualified him for his role as apostle (his suffering, his imprisonment, his struggles) are the very things he points to as things that legitimatize him.
All of this that he might “present everyone mature in Christ.” ( v. 28) He claims from the outset no personal, hidden agenda; no self-glorification. His message is not about himself, but instead about the One for whom he labors expending “all His energy that he powerfully works” within him. (v29). Paul does not even claim that “energizing” as coming from himself!
He does not lay out his degrees or experience, or his background as a rabbi. He doesn’t even defend the reason he has been imprisoned! Instead his focus is on “God’s mystery, which is Christ.” (2:2)
His Source For Ministry
Paul begins by telling the Colossians that his ministry was not conferred on him by the approval of man. It was not given him because of his educational credentials, though he could have appealed to that. It was Christ Who called him to this apostolic role, and it was Christ’s call which was the only credential he required.
I do not believe that Paul ever got over the fact that God chose him to fulfill this role. At the end of his life, he wrote his protégé Timothy and said “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service; even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor.” (1 Timothy 1:12-13)
In Chapter 1:21-23, Paul is not launching an accusation by saying “you were once alienated…hostile…doing evil…” He was speaking also of himself, and he well remembered what he was before he met Jesus.
We would be much better if we each did the same. “Remember what you used to be…” Paul was saying. We need to turn our backs completely on our former way of living that was anti-Christ and all things Christian, even if we simply lived apathetically toward the things of God. We do well to remember where we came from, and allow that memory to add an urgency to our efforts to reach the lost and live the Gospel out.
Paul’s call to ministry and salvation on the Damascus Road in Syria, as he was on a mission to wipe out the Christian movement, is one of the most dramatic conversion experiences we have in the Bible. None was going in a more violent, aggressive, and headstrong direction against Jesus than Paul.
But Jesus called to him while he traveled, and struck him blind in the middle of the road. (Acts 26:9-18) In that weakened state, God sent a man to him to explain what had happened three days later. Ananias, a faithful believer, prayed over Paul (then Saul), laid his hands on him, and caused him to receive his sight.
Paul never forgot what it was like to live in opposition to the Gospel. Now, he literally was pouring out his life to proclaim it to all who would hear. He knew he was unworthy; and he knew the grace of God that came to him could save anyone!
He was no volunteer to the ministry. Jesus violently confronted him and called him out of darkness and into light. And Paul never looked back.
Paul understood that ministry would equal suffering. Jesus told him “that I will show you many things you will suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9)
The enemies of the Gospel, the Jewish leadership and the false teachers beginning to infect the church in Colossae made much of the fact that Paul was a political prisoner of Rome. We can hear their arguments against the apostle: “So you are listening to advice from a man you’ve never seen and he’s being held prisoner in Rome for being a troublemaker?”
But in Colossians 1:24-27 Paul answers this criticism head-on. He doesn’t act like what he is experiencing is an aberration or a mistake. Instead, he says “I rejoice….!”
The ministry meant suffering for Paul. It does still today for many. Those going through persecution in Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea understand the price of ministry.
But rather than resenting his suffering, Paul said “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake…” Paul rejoiced because his sufferings united him, in a mystical way, with the sufferings of Christ.
Some have taught, notably the Catholic Church, that Paul is referring here to purgatory, where believers would go after their death to “finish (fill up) the sufferings of Christ for the church.”
This doctrine cannot be defended Biblically. There is no such place as purgatory discussed in the Bible. The idea that Christians need to go to a place of suffering to “complete” what Christ left undone is an affront to the completion of Jesus’ sufferings on our behalf.
But if this is not what Paul meant by “filling up what is lacking” in Christ’s afflictions, what does it mean? It could mean, first of all, that Ananias, at Paul’s conversion, told him he would suffer many things for Christ’s sake. (Acts 9:16) As we know now from Paul’s testimony and history, truer words could not have been spoken.
The sufferings he endured, however, were always understood as “for Christ’s sake.” Literally Colossians 1:24 interpreted Paul’s saying to mean “(he was) filling up in his turn the leftover parts of Christ’s sufferings for the church.” Lightfoot says it means to “fill up and even supplement” the sufferings of Christ. His suffering came to him for three reasons. One, because of his laser-focus on the church, which is Christ’s body. He suffered, not for his own person, but for the bride for which Christ laid down His life on the cross.
Second, his sufferings came because of the presence of Christ in him. Satan hates Christians, not for our own sakes, but because of the One Whose image they bear. It is the presence of Christ in us that the enemy despises. But we are the physical “bearer” of that image which so outrages the devil.
Third, Paul understood his sufferings “for the Gentiles.” In this instance, for the Colossians. It was for their sake he was in chains. He saw, behind the discomfort of a prison cell and the deprivation he experienced, the hand of God placing him there “for such a time as this,” to borrow the words from The Book of Esther.
Paul never saw suffering as useless or wasted. “I rejoice…” he said. The testimony the Romans and other persecutors throughout the centuries could not erase was the testimony of the joy experienced in the midst of suffering. It is not something the world ever understands. Only those whose lives are sold out to the One Who gave up His life for them!
Missiologist Nik Ripken reminds us that the persecutor’s primary goal is to silence the testimony of the believer. Their agenda is to silence the “word of our testimony” because this word has the power to tear down his kingdom!
Many speak of American Christians being persecuted today. Certainly we are more marginalized as a religious group, partly because we enjoyed a number of years in the mainstream of American culture.
There was a day when “going to church” was just expected of everyone. To say someone does not go to church was tantamount to disparaging a person’s character and morality. This belief led many to “attend” church services to cultivate their image in the community or even to further a business or political agenda.
As time went by, that centralizing of “church” attendance began to change, and as more and more cultures and nationalities have become a normal part of the American landscape, church attendance has become less and less necessary to many.
The conservative Christian movement in America has also gone through a time, due to alignment with conservative politics, that has identified the church too neatly with conservative and fundamental political agendas.
The rise of the Moral Majority lent itself to this cultural shift. As this movement lost favor in our culture, the church also lost favor. Still today we are aligned, in the minds of many people, with such conservative political views and politics whether we engage politically or not.
All of these and other cultural currents have moved the church to the sidelines in America, leaving us as a far less influential force to be considered. The ensuing years as the new millennium was born have moved us even further toward the margins.
With the loss of our high profile in American culture and the rise of a culture of sensitivity, offense and political correctness, it has become much harder to share our faith publically. Christians have become intimidated with the idea of talking about Jesus, fearing reprisals from the workplace, the loss of relationships and friendships, and now even the accusation of our viewpoint amounting to “hate speech.” We are intimidated into silence.
But we are not persecuted as a whole. While occasionally things arise that would fit the definition of persecution, these issues are usually more about marginalizing Christianity for unpopular and politically “incorrect” standards. But we are not persecuted for using the name of Jesus Christ in public. And as long as intimidation works to silence us, we probably won’t see outright persecution in America.
To summarize, then, the persecution that Paul and the early Christians were experiencing and that many today in various parts of the world still experience was directed toward their sharing the Gospel of Who Jesus is. “Do not speak any more in that name…” the apostles were threatened by the Jews in the Book of Acts.
Much of what Paul writes about suffering is related to sharing Jesus’ name. Much of what we experience today is cultural pressure to marginalize our influence in America, but is not directly an effort to keep us from talking about Jesus…just to keep us within bounds where we “belong.”
In Cuba on a visit with a Baptist group a few years ago, we were cautioned as we approached our vans that they suspected one of two drivers was a spy for the government. We were urged, whatever else we talked about, not to bring up the name Castro.
That was not a problem for us, since we were not there on a political mission. And it turned out that our driver was a spy for the regime. But the thought that entered the minds of several of our team was, “what if they told us not to bring up the name Jesus?” Would we have risked our freedom by refusing to be silent about the Name above every Name, or would the persecutors have won?
What price are you willing to pay to “fill up the measure of Christ’s suffering?” Would you refuse to speak in Jesus’ name or about Jesus for fear you will be misunderstood? Or for fear of offending someone? Or for fear you will miss a promotion at work? When the time comes and it is your turn to “fill up” the measure of the suffering of Christ for the church, what will you do?
When Paul was Saul and had given himself to destroy the church, the resurrected Jesus stopped him on the Damascus Road and said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” Paul learned in that encounter that the unity of Jesus Christ to His body is so intimate that, when we suffer, Jesus hurts. When we hurt another Christian, it hurts our Savior.
And when we suffer because we are Christians, Christ is honored in our suffering. A Christian should never suffer “as a thief or evildoer” but it is an honor to suffer “as a Christian.” (1 Peter 4:15-16). Jesus blessed those who suffer for His namesake (Matthew 5:10-12).
But Paul also understood his suffering as “for the Gentiles (pagans, non-Jewish people).” Paul’s defense before the courts turned when he mentioned that he had been brought before the tribunal because of his desire for the Gentiles to receive this Gospel. These words infuriated the Jews who had accused him. They felt they were validated in their attacks against him because of his association with Gentile people.
Finally, Paul could rejoice in his sufferings because they “filled up the measure of the sufferings of Christ.” Much has been written trying to interpret these words. Paul here was by no means suggesting he was “adding to” Christ’s sacrificial work for us.
In fact Paul’s use of the word “afflictions” here (ESV, others) is employing a word never used to describe Christ’s suffering. The “afflictions” Paul was talking about were the “pressures of life” or “the pressures of ministry” he experienced because of his devotion to Jesus. (Wiersbe)
Jesus is close enough to His church to feel their pain, especially when they experience it because of their faith in Him. In this way we “fill up” the sufferings that God ordained for Christ to suffer on earth, and His body, as the continuing incarnation of Jesus, will experience before Christ’s return in glory.
Paul’s message was continually a Gospel-focused one. (See comments in Chapter 4). His desire was constantly to “make known the full Word of God” (v 25). His struggle as he explains it in Colossians 2:1-3 is that those who had not seen his face “may reach all the riches of full assurance and understanding and knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ…” (2:2)
Colossians takes on a religion based on their claim to have “a mystery” which they will reveal to you as you become their follower. They claimed to have “understanding” and “knowledge” of the mystery which was, as they defined it, “knowing God.”
Paul is taking their claim and turning it, against them and, at the same time, lifting up Jesus as “the mystery of God now revealed.” He desperately wants the Colossian and Laodecian churches to understand that, in Christ, the mystery has already been fully revealed!
In the mystical eastern religions in Biblical times, as well as ours, there is always a “secret code” or “secret ritual” or “secret name” or “secret number” that, when unlocked, solves all the mysteries of the universe. People still today seek out those religions and spend fortunes and lifetimes trying to purchase keys to unlock the mysteries of life.
But Paul is presenting, in Jesus, the mystery of God revealed, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Col 1:27-28)
How profound! How simple! God has placed “the mystery” inside of the meekest and most inconsequential saint. Not the spiritually elite, or the remarkably intelligent, nor the influential leaders, but inside of all the Gentiles (pagans) lies the answer to life’s greatest questions: Christ. Is. In. You!
Paul expands this understanding in Ephesians 3:4-6
…the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the Gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members of one another’s body, and sharers together in Christ Jesus
Incredible statements. This mystery binds Jews and Gentiles together as one, to sit at the same table, share in the same body, and worship at the feet of Jesus Christ.
No wonder Paul longed to “have their hearts encouraged and joined together in love.” Grafting together two conflicting and opposing and hostile people to each other is no simple mission. But that is exactly what Paul sought to do, and weld them together with the fusion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This was a mystery. The fullness of God dwelt in Christ. That is profound. But another great mystery is also in play: “Christ is in you, the hope of glory. We cannot imagine the magnitude of that statement for Paul’s day, let alone our own.
The mystery, for those with “plausible arguments” that sought to destabilize young believers, was something to be discovered and looked for. The mystery, for Paul, was something that God had freely revealed as he proclaimed the word of God fully. (1:26)
Nothing is more worthy of our time, our “labor” (1:29), our love and our passion than this mystery. It is freely ours to freely share. Paul, though absent in body (2:5) was “with them in spirit” as they stand fast in the truth of this mystery, unshaken by arguments posed to them.
The Colossian church gave Paul cause to rejoice, finally, as he heard of “the good order and the firmness of (their) faith in Christ.” (2:5) Nothing gladdened the heart of the great apostle more than seeing their pursuit of the faith in the face of opposition and false teaching. This was the apostle’s heart and the engaging passion of his life, as the Word of God went forth and the Gospel was proclaimed.
It should also become ours.