Filling up What is Lacking Print
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Thursday, 10 March 2011 10:16

I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church (Colossians 1:24).

As evangelicals, we’re convinced that Christ’s work is finished, complete, and utterly sufficient. For many evangelicals, this is the gospel: Nothing can take away from Christ’s work, and we can add nothing to salvation by our works or our penance, by self-denial or sacraments or sacrifice. Nothing is lacking in the afflictions of Christ. Jesus has done it all and He’s done it forever.

But Paul shakes us up: “I fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ in my flesh,” he says.

We pile up New Testament passages – mostly from Paul himself – to correct Paul. Christ died for our sins, He was wounded for our transgressions, He bore our sins in His body on the tree, He freed us from our sins by His blood, and the blood of Jesus – not the blood of Peter or Paul or Polycarp – cleanses us from sin.  Once the blood of God has been wrung from the body of God, how can we need anything more?

Yet Paul stubbornly says, “I fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ in my flesh.”

We don’t even have to contradict Paul; Paul appears to contradict himself. Just a few verses earlier in Colossians, he says God has reconciled all things through the blood of the cross, things in heaven and things on earth. There’s nothing left to reconcile that hasn’t already been reconciled by Jesus’ death. Later in Colossians, Paul says that Jesus nailed the certificate that stood against us to the cross, and so cancelled our debt. Did Jesus leave any unpaid debt? Even if he did, how can Paul pay it by his own sufferings? Is Paul setting himself up as a co-redemptor?

Paul doesn’t contradict himself, and he doesn’t put himself on a par with Jesus. He knows he is not the Savior. “Was Paul crucified for you?” he asks the Corinthians in a moment of exasperation. “Were you baptized in the name of Paul?”

But we cannot simply ignore what Paul says: “I fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ in my flesh.”  Whatever can he mean?

Let’s start simply. Whatever Paul means, he obviously doesn’t believe that the suffering of Jesus delivers him from having to suffer himself. We may think that Jesus endured pain and anguish so that our lives can be easy and painless, but Paul says the opposite. Jesus didn’t die and rise to rescue us from the messy inconvenience of dying and rising. Jesus died and rose so that we could share in His death and resurrection in our own death and resurrection. So too with His afflictions: The Head suffered so that the Body and each member can participate in His sufferings in our sufferings.

Whatever Paul means, we can say one other thing: He doesn’t think his sufferings have any value in themselves. He rejoices in his sufferings, and knows his sufferings benefit the church only because he knows they are not his sufferings. Jesus was afflicted so that we can share His afflictions; beyond that, He suffered to lay claim to our sufferings and make them His own. The Head suffers to incorporate the Body’s afflictions into Himself. Paul doesn’t think his sufferings add anything to Christ’s afflictions because Paul’s afflictions are Christ’s afflictions.

This is what Paul means when he says that he suffers the afflictions of Christ “in the flesh” – he means, in his own flesh. Paul labors, is beaten times beyond number, continually faces death. He has been lashed, shipwrecked, in dangers from Jews and Gentiles, threatened in city and country, hungry, thirsty, cold, exposed. And besides all this, he has the daily pressure of the churches; he is weakened by every weak brother, and intensely concerned with every Christian who is led into sin. But all the afflictions he endures for the sake of the church, all the afflictions he experiences in his own flesh, are not his own, but Christ’s, Christ the Head suffering in the Body.

People deal with trouble and pain in all sorts of twisted ways. Some boast of their pain. The reason is not hard to find. When you’ve lost your health, and your marriage, and your kids, and your dignity, and your job, and your friends – when you have nothing else, at least you have your pain. When you’ve lost everything, you can still cling doggedly to your precious loss. Pain sometimes seems to be the only thing we can call our own, but Paul won’t let us have even that. Whatever afflictions you suffer, whatever pain, whatever loss, whatever weakness, Jesus has claimed that too. It all belongs to Him. Jesus doesn’t just want the best parts of you, the strong and healthy members. Jesus claims every last bit of you, even – especially – your weaknesses. He claims them, so let Him have them, and know that your afflictions are Christ’s afflictions working out in your flesh.

Paul goes further. He knows that he has more to suffer. He has not yet experienced all the afflictions of Christ that he will experience in the course of his ministry. Christ’s afflictions culminated in the cross, and not until Paul dies for the churches will he share fully in the fullness of Christ’s suffering. Even when Paul dies a martyr’s death, even then Paul knows that his sufferings are not his own. The Image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, became flesh and died on a cross so that He could become the firstborn from the dead. It’s not enough for Him to be the first from the Father; He has to be the first to burst through the grave, because in everything He must have preeminence. Jesus is Lord of life, Lord of your life; He has become Lord of death. Heidegger was wrong: Not even your death belong to you. It belongs to Jesus, the Living One who holds the keys of Death and of Hades.

“I fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ in my flesh.” Paul means that when he finally dies in serving the church, then he will fully experience the sufferings of Christ in his own body; then he will share not only in Christ’s afflictions but also in Christ’s death. But that is not all Paul has in mind. He is also saying the very thing we cannot believe he is saying. He is telling us that the sufferings of Christ have not yet been filled out or filled up. Christ suffered once for all, and that death is sufficient for all time. But time goes on, and until the end of time the Spirit will keep imprinting Christ’s one sufficient death into more and more lives, the Spirit will keep dealing out shares in Christ’s sufferings, the Spirit will work and worm His way into the lives of countless future believers to mold them into the shape of a cross. The power of Christ’s singular death spreads when believers share in His afflictions, suffering for one another and for the church. Thus Paul, and we, fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ.

Paul knows what he’s talking about. He saw it happen. He saw Christ’s affliction being filled up. He was standing by as Stephen preached about Moses and Christ, as Stephen saw the vision of Jesus in glory, as Stephen asked God to forgive his murderers with his dying breath. By his sufferings in the flesh, Stephen filled up what was lacking in the afflictions of Christ, and when he died the church scattered to the corners of the earth and the Spirit was unleashed to Samaritans, then Paul himself, finally to Gentiles. When Jesus died, His Spirit flowed from His tattered flesh, and when the stones punctured Stephen’s body it released the Spirit he had received from Jesus. So we too fill up the sufferings of Christ as we share His afflictions, confident that the blood we shed belongs to Jesus, certain that the triumphant Spirit of Jesus streams from our mangled bodies as He did from Jesus and from Stephen.

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