Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"THROUGH HIS SUFFERING PAUL FILLS UP WHAT IS LACKING IN THE AFFLICTIONS OF CHRIST"
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
Perhaps you have once seen it too: an image of Jesus Christ on the cross in obvious agony. Under the image these words: "this is what I did for you; what will you do for Me?" Implication: we need to return the favor, we need to do something for Christ. Maybe complete what He beganÖ.
We are accustomed to think that Christís work on that Good Friday so long ago was sufficient to pay for all our sins. We even say so in Article 22 of the Belgic Confession: "It is Ö a terrible blasphemy to assert that Christ is not sufficient, but that something else is needed besides Him." Weíre sure: we do not have to do anything to complete the salvation He has begun. Thatís why we rejoice in the message of Good Friday, and we do not hang in our homes an image of Christ on the cross with the question what weíll do for Jesus. He did it all.
How striking, then, the words of Paul in our text! "I now rejoice in my sufferings for you," he says, and goes on to explain that he fills up in his flesh "what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ." Weíre puzzled. Is Paul saying that Christís afflictions on the cross were not sufficient to pay for our sins? Must we tone down some of our rejoicing today, and give space for Paul to add some suffering of his own to that Christ for the benefit of others?? Might the Lord perchance want us also to "fill up" Christís afflictions for the benefit of others? It would certainly make for a different Good Friday!
No, congregation, thatís not Paulís point. The world hated Christ, and so "both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together" against Christ to condemn Him, kill Him (cf Acts 4:27). The same treatment is reserved for Godís people. Yet thatís no reason to despair; Paul rejoices at experiencing this development.
I preach to you Godís word today using this theme:
THROUGH HIS SUFFERING PAUL FILLS UP WHAT IS LACKING IN THE AFFLICTIONS OF CHRIST.
1. The sufferings of Paul.
The apostle Paul is a happy man. Thatís how he begins our text: "I now rejoice." In the eye of his mind he pictures a feast, a celebration, rejoicing.
Itís not because heís got a long weekend, or an anniversary to remember. He explains why he celebrates: "I now rejoice in my sufferings for you."
Perhaps we can get ourselves to agree that suffering gives reason to rejoice if we can see benefit in it for another. But letís be honest: then itís the benefit-for-another that makes us rejoice, not the fact of the suffering itself. From Paulís words, though, itís clear that he rejoices because of the sufferings themselves. Somehow he considers the suffering a privilege.
How he was suffering? His letter to the Colossians was written from his prison in Rome. Not that this imprisonment involved so much physical suffering; according to Acts 28 Paul lived in his own rented house, where he was under house arrest. He couldnít leave, but visitors certainly could Ėand did- come to him regularly (vss 30f). Yet getting to Rome had included so very much suffering. Agabus had told him back in Acts 21:10f that the Jews of Jerusalem would bind Paul and deliver him to the Gentiles. Thatís what happened: when Paul went into the temple Jews from Asia stirred up the crowd and laid hands on him (Acts 21:27), with as result that Paul was dragged out the temple, beaten and about to be killed (vss 30ff). Soldiers bound Paul with chains and brought him before the tribune for judgment. The mob, meanwhile, thirsted for his death; "Away with him!" they cried (vs 36). Itís a repeat, one would say, of the suffering our Lord endured on Good Friday! We even learn from Acts 22:24 that Paul was about to be scourged Ėeven as Jesus was- but escaped that scourging because he had a Roman citizenship Ė something Jesus did not have. That citizenship guaranteed him some semblance of a fair trial, and so he escaped death Ė for now.
The following chapters of the book of Acts tell us of various attempts on Paulís life. Acts 23:12: "some of the Jews" Ėhis own countrymen!- "banded together and bound themselves under an oath" that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. Their effort came to nothing, but was surely cause for suffering on the part of the apostle. Ch 27 relates the trip by ship to Rome, with its horrible storm at sea. Here it wasnít Jews seeking to kill Paul, but Satan himself sought to devour the apostle. In a word, here is the material of which Paul wrote to the Corinthians: "Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness - besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches" (2 Cor 11:25ff). In truth, the man suffered. Thatís what he refers to in our text: "I now rejoice in my sufferings."
What those sufferings were for? Says Paul in our text to the Colossians: they were "for you." Here is the same expression that the Bible uses elsewhere in relation to Christís sufferings on Good Friday; they are Ďforí us, for our benefit. We understand the point: Christ suffered the agonies of the cross in our place, for we deserved the severe judgment of God that fell on Him. Now Paul says that his sufferings are "for" the Colossians. At the end of our text he expands on the point: his sufferings are "for the sake of His body, which is the church." So it includes also us; we benefit from Paulís suffering.
To us it all sounds so contradictory. Itís fixed in our minds: the whole Bible, including also the apostle Paul, is emphatic that the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ, especially on the cross of Calvary, are the complete and total cause of our salvation. In fact, itís what we read from Paulís own words to the Colossians. Chap 1:14: "in [Christ] we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins." This Christ, the apostle continues in 1:15ff, is none less than "the image of the invisible God," through whom the Father created all things in heaven and on earth. This Christ is the almighty, the cause and purpose of all things. Would His suffering work on Good Friday then somehow be deficient?? No, says Paul in vs 20: it pleased the Father to reconcile all things to Himself "by Him" Ė Christ "made peace through the blood of His cross." Result? Vs 21: people who once were alienated from God and enemies of God and each other "Christ has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death" Ė and the way Paul writes that sentence in the Greek makes crystal clear that this reconciling work is complete. Paul brings up the same theme in chap 2:13f: through Christís work on Good Friday the Lord took away our sins, obtained forgiveness, wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us. His work was complete, was sufficient; Good Friday is the complete and total cause of our salvation! His very identity as image of the invisible God guarantees that result! In a word: Paul knew that Christ on the cross had cried out those words of triumph: "It is finished!"
How then can Paul rejoice that his sufferings benefit the Colossians?! How can he say that his sufferings "fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ"? That brings us to our second point:
2. The afflictions of Christ.
"Afflictions of Christ," says Paul. In relation to rules of grammar, you can read those words in two ways. These words can describe the afflictions which Christ Himself endured (and then the reference would be to His suffering on Good Friday), and they can also describe the afflictions others endure for Christís sake. A first-off reading of the text makes us think that Paul is describing the afflictions Christ Himself endured, and then we run stuck because Paul says that he fills up whatís lacking in those afflictions Ė and we know full well that nothing was lacking in Christís sufferings. That in itself means that this reading of the text cannot be correct. Besides, the specific word Paul uses here Ė"afflictions of Christ"- is never used in relation to the agonies the Savior experienced on Good Friday. So we need to examine the second possible meaning of the words Ďafflictions of Christ,í ie, afflictions that Godís people experience on account of Jesus Christ.
As it is, the Bible has ample reference to the people of God suffering on account of their association with Christ Jesus. We read some verses from John 15, part of the instruction Jesus gave His disciples on the night of His betrayal. Judas Iscariot had already left (13:31), and so Jesus was beginning to feel the hatred of the world that would culminate in His arrest, His trial and torture, His being rejected by the people, His suffering. Now He tells the disciples what the implications are for them. He says in vs 18: "If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you." In fact, Jesus continues, the world will hate you precisely because "I chose you out of the world" (vs 19). As it happens to the Master, so it will happen to the servant: they persecuted Me, they will persecute you (vs 20). Indeed, "the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service" (16:2). Notice: the apostles would suffer on account of Jesus Christ. That is: afflictions of Christ, afflictions on account of Christ, would reach into their lives. That is what Paul refers to in our text. The Ďafflictions of Christí are not afflictions that Christ Himself experiences, but afflictions that Christís apostles experience because they are associated with Christ.
Think here also of the anger of the devil towards the church. Revelation 12: "when the dragon saw that he had been cast to the earth, he persecuted the woman who gave birth to the male Child" (vs 13). And vs 17: "the dragon was enraged with the woman, and he went to make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ." Yet the dragonís anger is not directed in first instance against the woman, the church, or against her offspring, the believers. The devilís anger is directed specifically against the Christ who defeated him on Good Friday. Yet because he cannot reach Christ Ėfor Christ has ascended into heaven- he takes his anger out on those who belong to Christ. So Godís people experience afflictions, tribulations, the hatred of the world. Thatís what Paul refers to in our text. The Ďafflictions of Christí describe the pressures the children of God experience in this world on account of the worldís Ėand the devilís- hatred of Jesus Christ.
In fact, in the course of his ministry Paul had forecasted that he would himself experience these Ďafflictions of Christí in a particularly vivid manner. Acts 20: Paul says farewell to the elders of Ephesus with these words: "I go bound in the Spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to be there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that chains and tribulations await me" (vss 22f) Ė and there Paul uses the same word as in our text when he speaks of the Ďafflictionsí of Christ. That prophecy came to pass. We read from Acts 21. Because he preached the gospel of Christís triumph to Jews and Gentiles, Paul was hated, attacked, beaten, and almost killed. "Away with him," shouted the crowds of Jerusalem Ė just as they had some years ago in relation to Jesus of NazarethÖ. Him they hated, and therefore they hated also an apostle who proclaimed Jesusí triumph. As a result of the hatred Paul experienced in Jerusalem, he ended up in prison, first in Jerusalem, then in Caesarea, and lastly in Rome. Chains and tribulations for Christís sake: this characterized the life of the apostle because he belonged to Jesus Christ. Tribulation, affliction: the devil Ėand therefore the world- canít stomach the work of Jesus Christ on Good Friday, and take out their hatred on those for whom Christ died Ė be it Paul long ago, be it the people of God through all generations. You see: Christís work on Good Friday, Christís work on the cross, touches us not only in the sense that we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins; it touches us also in the sense that this triumph sparks the worldís hatred against the church so that we experience "the afflictions of Christ."
In light of all that, we can also understand Paulís use of the word Ďlackí and therefore the word Ďfill upí. He speaks of "what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ" and his point is not at all that somehow Christís suffering on the cross was inadequate. The point is that the devil hates Christ with a hellish hatred, and there is no way that Paul, as apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15), can escape that hatred, can escape tribulations for Christís sake. Paul must count on receiving his share. As long as he doesnít receive that share of afflictions, the promise of God in relation to himself will not be complete, not be fulfilled Ė and a lack will remain. Hence his choice of language; Paul must fill up what is lacking, Paul must accept his share of afflictions-for-Christís-sake. Here is a direct reference to Jesusí words to Ananias on the day of Paulís conversion: "I will show him how many things he must suffer for My nameís sake" (Acts 9:16).
I come now to our third point:
3. The implications for the church.
We have, congregation, touched on the implication already. The apostle Paul suffered Ďthe afflictions of Christí, but was not the only one to do so. We might wish that his sufferings were unique, or perhaps limited to those who preach the gospel in hostile environments. But it simply is not so. The afflictions of Christ form the lot of every child of God Ė simply because the devil in frustration goes to make war against all the offspring of the woman (Rev 12). What Paul experienced was fulfillment of Jesusí words on the night of His betrayal in John 15, words that describe what all whom Christ has chosen out of the world will experience. As I said before, the effect of Christís triumph on the cross of Calvary is not only that we are reconciled to God, but also that - exactly because weíre reconciled to God!- we are more radically hated in this world. This is an implication of Christís triumph that we may not forget! Let your perception of Good Friday not be one-sided! I refer here to Paulís own radical language in Col 1:13: God "has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love." We used to belong to Ďthe power of darknessí, be Satanís people, Satanís slaves. But God through Christ ĖGood Friday!- has "delivered us from the power of darkness" and Heís brought us into "the kingdom of the Son of His love." Thatís radical. Thereís nothing halfway in that. And precisely because Christ has taken us from Satanís camp does Satan hate Christ so terribly Ė and take that hatred out on us. Good Friday is evidence of Godís great love for us Ė and produces Satanís great hatred against us! Indeed, let your perception of Good Friday not be one-sided.
Does the message of Satanís hatred, and our resulting afflictions-for-Christís-sake, overshadow the sense of joy we ought to have because of the gospel of Good Friday? Should the reality of "the afflictions of Christ" in the lives of Godís people make us nervous, anxious? No, beloved, No!
Why not? Notice, brothers and sisters, what Paul does; he rejoices in his suffering as he experiences the afflictions of Christ! He rejoices because he realizes that his suffering benefits the believers of Colosse, indeed, benefits the church of Christ. How that might be? Look with me again, congregation, in the book of Acts. In the course of his missionary journeys Paul preached the gospel of Christís suffering and death in this town and that Ė persistently to relatively small audiences and certainly not to the movers and shakers of society. But as a result of his arrest in Acts 21, Paul got to address a large crowd of people from Jerusalem. Chap 23 relates how the apostle could lay the gospel before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leaders. In chap 24 Paul gets to preach to Felix the Roman governor, and in chap 26 he proclaims the gospel to the next governor, Festus, and before King Agrippa and Bernice. Back in chap 23 the Lord Himself appeared to Paul with the explicit message that he was to "bear witness [of Christ] at Rome" Ė and thatís undoubtedly what happened; Paul had to appear before Caesar himself (cf Phil 1:12ff). Talk about bringing the gospel to the movers and shakers of society! Did the afflictions of Christ, did Satanís hatred of Christ as he poured it out on Paul, silence the apostle? Not at all! In fact, those afflictions gave Paul an audience he would not have had otherwise!
But how could Paulís suffering help the Colossians Ė for Paul says it does? Consider only this, beloved: according to Col 1:8 Paul hears from Epaphras how things are going in Colosse (cf 4:12). They werenít doing so well, and Paul sees it as his duty to address the problems of that congregation. So what does he do? He canít go to visit, because heís a prisoner of the state. Yet he has the time to help; his house arrest restricts what he can do. So he sits down to write a letter. What he writes is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and so of inestimable value for the church of Colosse Ė indeed for all Godís churches on the face of the earth. Chap 2:25: God had made Paul a minister of the gospel so that he could pass on the riches of Christ, the mystery hidden from ages and generations. Though Satan would afflict Paul, would seek to silence him and so restrict the spread of the gospel, precisely those afflictions give Paul the opportunity to write a careful letter to the church of Colosse Ė for their benefit and ours. Truly, how thankful the church of Colosse will have been with the letter they received from Paul, and how thankful we may be for that letter. Talk about Paulís sufferings having benefit for us!
And that, congregation, is a pattern God has promised for all who suffer the afflictions of Christ. Did Paul not tell the church in Rome that "all things work for good with those who love God"? Even tribulations and afflictions must serve in Godís kingdom?
Get despondent in the face of afflictions? Weary of the hatred of the world? No, congregation, No! Afflictions for Christians are the inevitable spin-off resulting from Christís victory on the cross. His triumph on Calvary was total, and that is why tribulations for Godís people can ultimately do no harm, but rather work for good.
For that reason, do not avoid "the afflictions of Christ" that come your way. Yes, it is tempting to be not so different from the world, for then we donít experience the hatred so sharply. But you have been transferred, beloved, from the power of darkness into the kingdom of Godís Son, and thereís no halfway position in that; so radical, so total, was Christís work on Good Friday Ė and thatís why we rejoice in His work. Be then consistent: tolerate nothing of darkness in your life, in any way. Yes, that will mean suffering, will attract upon you "the afflictions of Christ". But that doesnít matter, for God will turn that suffering to the benefit of yourself and those around you. Amen.