Thursday, June 28, 2007

Can one really fill up in one's flesh what is still laking in Christ's afflictions? (Col 1:24)

I am spending some time in Paul's Letter to the Colossians this summer. Just this week I came upon that perpetually perplexing verse: "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" (Col. 1:24).

For me, this is quite the Bible Brain Buster: a biblical text that becomes puzzling in light of central Christian affirmations. As with all Bible Brain Busters, it may say more about my assumptions that it does about the difficulty of the text itself. But in this case I think my perplexity is warranted.

The counterweight notion that renders this text puzzling is the affirmation that Christ's suffering is sufficient. Has he not died once for all? Is his suffering not perfect, lacking nothing? Certainly I can understand that our suffering for the gospel might participate in Christ's sufferings. But to think of our suffering as a supplement to something lacking in Christ's suffering seems odd to me.

Perhaps I am misunderstanding the sense in which Christ's suffering is sufficient. Perhaps I am misunderstanding the sense in which Paul is filling up what is lacking. Perhaps I am misunderstanding both. Perhaps this is just an unresolvable contradiction.

Any thoughts?
What do you think this text means?
Does it seem odd to you in light of the sufficiency of Christ's suffering?
Should we revise our talk of the sufficiency of Christ in light of this passage?
Should we allow our talk of the sufficiency of Christ to control our interpretation of this passage?


Keith Drury said...

I’m going to take a swing at this off the top of my head (which means I’ll probably say something stupid that Schenck can correct).

Could Paul have considered that the suffering of Christ collectively --including both His personal suffering plus the combined suffering of the body of Christ which had some sort of God-established limit or quota which he was filling out?

Ok that’s my take—now I’ll go actually read something to see who has already thought of this or why it is falls woefully short of explaing this…

vanilla said...

When one assumes the mantle of ministry to Christ's church, as Paul did, he partakes of the suffering of the church (body of Christ); and he is comforted by God even as he may then comfort the members of the body (I Cor 1:3-6).
Thus the passage in no way suggests that Christ's suffering for our sins is insufficient to salvation, but rather that Christ is in you; and no matter what suffering you endure you may look forward to sharing in God's glory!

Jason said...

The KJV suggests an interesting interpretation:
"Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake, which is the church."

Perhaps what is lacking is not Christ's personal suffering but the suffering Christ will cause in Paul's life. This is related to Keith's idea, but introduces another brain buster, especially when coupled with Acts 9:15-16:

"But the Lord said to Ananias, 'Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.'"

Generally, it would be interesting pastorally to think of suffering in this life as close-ended, as something you could be 'behind' in, i.e., to think that there is a total amount of suffering allotted to a person in his or her life. This might be tied to a form of Sanctification in which impurities are burned away (i.e., the refiner's fire) and could be coupled with the idea of the judgment for believers at the Parousia, serving as an impetus for doing the good (or rectifying the evil) even though it hurts, for in so doing, you won't have to suffer it later!

I'm not sure I like this interpretation (or that I've been clear in stating it), but I'd like to think it a possibility. Nothing is lacking in Christ, but we are still on the way of the cross, and may just be "behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake."

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I recognize that generally Methodism understands the you as plural, just as the Greek would indicate. But, when Jesus spoke to individuals and called them to "take up their cross and follow Him", He was speaking to an individual within an individual context. They understood what He meant. And that command had different meanings to the individuals.
Evangelicals have used Paul's letters and universalized their principles too broadly, I believe. Paul was speaking to the Church as an individual, just as Jesus did to the specific individual. Paul's understanding of the "new humanity" in the church was an enlarged view of community within the context of the Roman Empire and the suffering that that would mean to the "counter-culture" of the church.
Today, in America, Christians "use" cultural means to certain ends, right? And Paul doesn't "fit" that model...Our "suffering" is not political, as we have freedom, but possibly standing in the grocery store line for a while longer than expected! There is No comparison!
Your view is awfully close to Catholism and what Luther stood against...(as little as I "know")...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I forgot to add that just as the church in Paul's day was "facing" the persecution from the Empire, Jesus faced persecution from the religious for his breaking of the "law", which was "really" fulfilling the law! As all moral models do, they challenge the status quo and are reprimanded for it...even using Scripture!

Scott Hendricks said...

Okay, here's my shot:

Christ suffered for proclaiming God's kingdom and righteousness, for calling sinners to repentance, for breaking purity codes, for loving his neighbor as himself, and teaching his followers to do the same. Jesus also at least implied, if not enacted, the invitation of Gentiles into God's kingdom. These are the same things which Paul is preaching, plus Jesus crucified and risen, which Jesus himself proclaimed in the gospels.

I was reading Acts 19:21 last night, and wondered whether this mirrors somewhat Jesus' conviction that he must suffer in Jerusalem?

I just read Yoder's Politics of Jesus, and so I'm wondering if Paul sees himself as suffering for the same good news that Christ suffered for, thereby sharing the sufferings, and filling up what is lacking, since he must preach the gospel as he was commissioned, and suffer what he was shown by Christ he would.

So, the question for us is this: Are we failing to preach the whole gospel if we are not suffering for it?

Jeremy said...

This is a very interesting question, and my first instinct is to suggest what Keith said about the relationship between Christ's head (himself) and body (the Church). However, I would also want to say that this passage is not necessarily about the "sufficiency" of Christ's suffering, but about the continued suffering in this world. What Christ suffered on the cross was entirely sufficient. By his wounds we are healed. Yet, at the same time, his body, the Church, is still suffering. Although it has become common to speak of the finished work of Christ as happening on the cross, I am reminded of a quote from Origen (although the exact citation eludes me). He said something along the lines of, "Christ's work is still unfinished (imperfect), as long as I remain imperfect." Meaning that the work of Christ continues through until his second coming. Even though Christ's wounds heal us, the collective suffering of his body, the Church, is somehow a part of that original suffering that is still being worked out. Just a thought.

David said...

As several before me have said, much better than could I, Christ's suffering was full and complete. What Paul was writing about was what we might call "creative suffering", whereby anyone who takes up the Cross must, as part of the Church, take part in His suffering. Though this is not redemptive, and in no part diminishes our Lord's sufficient sacrifice, it is a necessary part of the Church's life as the continuing Body of Christ in the World. The accepting obedience to suffering of one limb of this body can only be of benefit to the whole body.
One idea that no-one has yet (I think) put forward is that Paul was a Jewish Pharisaic Rabbi, writing to a Gentile audience. Perhaps he was offering his sufferings in Christ as a vicarious devotion for the sake of the mission to the Gentiles?

Anonymous said...

Col 1:24 is incomplete without Gal 2:20, Php 1:20,21.

Bravo! Jason is closer to the thoughts of Paul so far!!!

Ken Schenck said...

I'm sorry I missed this fun one a few weeks ago. I used to enjoy this verse as a potential "naughty verse" to unravel assumptions of how Paul thought about atonement. But I've finally accepted that probably it's not nearly as juicy as I'd hoped. :-)

My current take is like someone above. The sufferings of the Christ are not anything lacking in Christ's sufferings but the sufferings in the name of Christ by those who follow after. The sufferings associated with the Christ, sufferings for the Christ. So I take the sense to be something like, "I complete with my body what is left to be suffered for Christ" or something like that...

In that sense of course Paul is being hyperbolic. There was and still is much left to be suffered by us for the Christ.

Anyway, that's where I'm at with this verse these days...

Scott said...

Hey John- I haven't visited here in awhile, but I clicked your Bible Brain Busters, and it brought me to this post.

I wonder if the "lack" of suffering refers to the Colossians specifically: that is, Paul may have been recognizing that the Colossians *weren’t* suffering.

I'd start with what David said, that the church's suffering "is a necessary part of the Church's life as the continuing Body of Christ in the World." That is, for Paul the church's suffering is just assumed.

Paul may be telling the Colossians essentially that there's (perhaps) nothing wrong with them *not* suffering in this instance, since Paul is suffering enough for all of them. If Colossians is indeed deutero-Pauline, then the author may be exalting Paul here somewhat as vicariously suffering for the church -- but not in exchange for their sins, simply in exchange for their ease of life.

So the "lack" isn't a lack of Christ, it's a lack of the Colossian church. Maybe.