Is there a Christian teacher whom you greatly respect but have never met? How would it feel to receive a personal letter from that person commending you for your faith and revealing their prayers for you? That is how the church in Colossae must have felt to receive a letter from the apostle Paul. By the time he wrote Colossians, Paul was well-known in the growing Christian movement, and Colossae was a small city with little influence.
Paul did not plant the Colossian church; he likely never even visited it. But he had heard about their “faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints” (1:4) through Epaphras. Epaphras is probably the one who started the Colossian church, and the minister of Christ who “told us about your love in the Spirit.” (1:8)
The letter to the Colossians is rich with theology. N. T. Wright notes,
Faced with a young church in a small town in up-country Asia Minor, Paul has written a letter in which he has distilled his understanding of some of the greatest themes in theology. (Wright, 40)1 There’s so much to discuss in Colossians, but Paul’s brief mention of ministering to the church in 1:24–29 can be a particularly tricky passage.
24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings 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, 25 of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. 27 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. 28 Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.
Colossians 1:24–29, ESV
Rejoicing in sufferings
Paul begins this passage by rejoicing in his sufferings
for your [the church’s] sake (v. 24) He rejoices in his sufferings elsewhere in his writings2, so this is not strange. Paul understands that he must suffer (Acts 9:16) along with all Christians, but Wright believes Paul to be
drawing the enemy’s fire on to himself (p. 89) as a way to relieve the young Colossian church of excess affliction. Personally, I see the clause “for your sake” as qualifying the rejoicing, not the suffering. Students of Greek grammar can correct me if I’m wrong, but I might re-write it this way:
Now I rejoice, for your sake, in my sufferings… With this rendering, Paul would be modeling joy in suffering for a young church already struggling with how to live as Christians. I have to admit, though, both interpretations seem very reasonable to me and align with Paul’s character.
Does Paul provide what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions?
The second part of verse 24 is strange and difficult:
… 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…
What could be lacking in Christ’s afflictions? Is Paul suggesting that the atonement on the cross is somehow incomplete? I have to admit that I don’t clearly understand Paul’s meaning here.
I’ve heard the interpretation that what’s lacking is gospel preaching—that since Jesus is no longer on the earth, Paul is picking up his preaching where he left off. This exposition seems incomplete to me. It’s true that Jesus is no longer physically preaching to people, but that doesn’t seem to create “lack” in Christ’s afflictions.
I think I fall more in line with how N. T. Wright and others interpret this passage. The church will necessarily suffer as Christ himself suffered. What is lacking in Christ’s afflictions is continued suffering. Christ no longer endures trials, temptations, and abuse in this world; his suffering has ended. But our suffering—the trials of believers around the world and through the ages—continues, and Paul
is filling up whatever contains all the Christian suffering, by enduring an excess amount, yet joyfully. This interpretation aligns well with Wright’s explanation for Paul’s suffering in the first half of verse 24.
In 1:25–27, Paul next refers to himself as a minister to the church—both the larger body of Christ and the Colossian church, which likely was mostly Gentile converts. In verse 25, he mentions his stewardship from God
to make the word of God fully known and calls it
the mystery hidden for ages and generations (ESV). These verses are strikingly similar to part of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus:
7 Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. 8 To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
Ephesians 3:7–10, ESV
In both passages, Paul states that he was made a minister to the church by God for the sake of the Gentiles, he mentions the riches of Christ, and he proclaims the
mystery hidden for ages which he has been charged with sharing. The mystery here should not be thought of by the English definition of a mystery, as a puzzle or perplexity. N. T. Wright notes,
In their looking forward to the day when God would act in history to restore the fortunes of his people, some Jewish seers expressed their hopes in terms of the ‘secret plans’ that God was reserving for the last great day. The plans of Yahweh are alluded to throughout the Old Testament but are now revealed to all God’s people. These plans are not a timeline of events, however, but a person: Jesus Christ.
Christ in you, the hope of glory
The Christology of Colossians 1:15–20 is amplified in the words,
Christ in you, the hope of glory (v. 27) Paul expands on this ancient mystery which is revealed to the Gentiles (not just the people of Israel!): Messiah (Christ) lives in/among you (plural), which is your hope of future glory.3 Of the “riches” of verse 27, Wright notes,
Among these treasures is the fact that God’s glory is to be shared with his people (cf. Rom. 5:2). This hope of glory is a certainty because of the mystery itself, which is Christ in you. (92) The righteousness of Christ is counted to those who live by faith in him. W. G. T. Shedd writes in his Dogmatic Theology,
Christ’s perfect obedience which merits eternal life is not the sinner’s perfect obedience, but God imputes it to him: he calls or reckons it his. (Shedd, 700)4
Paul works because God works
In the final two verses of this short passage, Paul presents the reason for his labors,
that we may present everyone mature in Christ (v. 28) With this statement, Paul reflects Christ himself. As verse 22 reveals, reconciliation between God and humanity was achieved by Jesus by his death on the cross,
in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach. In other words, Christ reconciled us to God by imputing his righteousness to us so that we may stand before God “holy and blameless and above reproach.” Paul labors steadfastly; God is at work and so he must be as well.
Paul ends the first chapter of Colossians5 on a high note: he gives all his energy—and truly it’s actually Christ’s energy imparted to Paul (
that he powerfully works within me)—to the stewardship he’s been given by God to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles.
The key message of these verses, I think, is that everyone6 is capable of Christian maturity in Christ—both Jew and Gentile. I’ll close with a quote from Wright’s commentary:
Then it is that the goal of maturity (not ‘perfection’ in the sense of sinlessness, as Phil. 3:13–14 makes clear) may be in sight. This goal is possiblein Christ: the Image of God himself now lives in his people by his Spirit (1:8), working secretly until their life and his are indistinguishable in their basic character, in true humanity (1:27; 3:10).
N. T. Wright, “The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary” (p. 94)
Wright, N. T. The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, England, 1986. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. ↩
Cf. Romans 5:3–5; 2 Corinthians 12:10; Philippians 1:12–18, 3:10–11. ↩
we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.(1 Corinthians 2:7, NIV) ↩
Shedd, W. G. T. (1888). Dogmatic Theology. ↩
In actuality, Paul’s letter contained no chapters or verses, and chapter 2 continues with his labor for the church and the mystery of Christ. ↩
It’s not insignificant that Paul uses the word everyone three times in verse 28. ↩