I find passages like this some of the most interesting parts of Paul’s letters. Here we see his motives in ministry. Here we see what kept him going. Paul is often very open about his discouragements and failures, as well as his successes. In that regard, I have always found 2 Corinthians interesting as well. Here we get to see the apostle’s motivations, his discouragements, his goals.
In the verses before, he has dealt with more theological issues — though these are issues which have very serious bearing on their lives. He writes to correct misconceptions which have become prevalent in the Colossian church. He believes that ideas influence behavior — and that is why is is so often concerned to correct mistaken theological ideas.
He indicated in the verses just before this, how their very lives are shaped by the message of Christ which was preached to them — and which they need to keep.
So, the verses that follow reveal his motivations in doing what he does — both in his ministry of preaching and teaching, and in the circulation of public letters like this. What is it that keeps him going?
Νῦν χαίρω ἐν τοῖς παθήμασιν ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν καὶ ἀνταναπληρῶ τὰ ὑστερήματα τῶν θλίψεων τοῦ Χριστοῦ ἐν τῇ σαρκί μου ὑπὲρ τοῦ σώματος αὐτοῦ, ὅ ἐστιν ἡ ἐκκλησία,
“I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”
This verse is often jarring to those who first hear it. Wasn’t Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross the complete and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the world? What, then, does Paul mean by saying that he is “completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”?
It appears to me that Paul conceives of Christ as continuing to suffer in the sufferings of the Church — his Body in the world. Yes, the Cross is God reconciling the world to Himself through Christ. Christ did all that was necessary to secure our salvation. John Wesley says that Paul means to speak of: “That which remains to be suffered by his members. These are termed the sufferings of Christ.”
Adam Clarke makes the point that Paul uses the word θλιψεις here — the common word for tribulation or affliction — rather than the word παθηματα, which is associated with the passion of Christ. I don’t know how much weight to give to that point — we dare not assume that all the New Testament words are technical terms. Nevertheless, it’s and interesting point.
Let me return to the point I made earlier: Christ’s sufferings are continuing through the sufferings of his Body, the church. This gave meaning to all of Paul’s discouragements and setbacks and misunderstandings and rejections. Jesus himself had said to his disciples: “the servant is not greater than his master.” In this way, he warned them that they could expect to suffer the same kind of rejection that he suffered. Matthew 10:24, 25: “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!”
We cannot always expect acceptance. Like the prophets of old, people can be rejected and insulted because they are telling the truth. The message of Christ goes against the grain of human egotism and greed.
But the goal is the make disciples. The goal is to impart the word faithfully. The goal is to bring people ever more fully, into the life of faith and hope and love. It is the continuing suffering of Christ, but it is also for the sake of the Body. It’s not an easy job.