Last Sunday we looked at the middle part of chapter 1 of Paul’s second letter to Timothy. He urges Timothy to not be ashamed of the testimony of Jesus, for Jesus had been crucified. It was dangerous to be associated with someone Rome condemned. Further, he urges Timothy to not be ashamed of him though he is in prison awaiting execution by Rome. It was dangerous for Timothy to be associated with Paul yet Paul calls him to “share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God” (2 Timothy 1:8).
In that sermon we saw three things about suffering. First, all will suffer. No one is exempt and no one can prevent suffering. Rich and poor, black and white, young and old, all will suffer. Second, all suffering has a purpose. God uses our suffering to make us more like Christ. Whether we suffer as a direct result of preaching the gospel or more along the lines of ordinary life, God uses our suffering to make us more like him. Third, all suffering will end. When the Lord Jesus returns he will resurrect his people and recreate this world and as John saw in Revelation 21 Jesus “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
When will that day be? Of course, no one knows the day of the Lord’s return save for God himself, but Scripture says something more about suffering. There is a specific amount decreed by God. In Revelation 6 John sees the souls of those who had been martyred for the gospel. They are under the altar in heaven and crying out for vengeance. By the way, this indicates that “heaven” is not our final goal, for the tears have not yet been wiped away! Here is what John saw.
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.Revelation 6:9–11 ESV
In response to their question of when that day would come, God tells them to rest a little longer. Their rest would be complete when the number of martyrs was complete. To say it another way, God indicates he has decreed a certain number of martyrs would be killed as they had been. We don’t know that number, but God does, for he has determined throughout history that his gospel would grow through the faithful proclamation of Jesus in the face of often violent opposition. This is the sort of suffering Paul calls Timothy to share in with him.
As we saw on Sunday, however, not all suffering is the direct result of the gospel, though all suffering believers experience is connected to the gospel of Jesus. In Colossians 1 Paul is in prison. This is not the same imprisonment as when he writes his second letter to Timothy. He is not awaiting death when he writes Colossians.
In this letter to the Colossians Paul explains how great the Lord Jesus is. He is the image of the invisible God! Everything was created by him and for him. Everything that God is Jesus is. He is therefore worthy of all glory, honor, and praise. He is the one who is reconciling all things to himself. He further explains how it is—and why it is!—the Colossian believers were saved by Jesus.
And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.Colossians 1:21–23 ESV
It is important to note that he says God has reconciled them for a purpose, and that purpose is not merely so they could “go to heaven” when they die! He has reconciled the Colossian believers “in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach”. Salvation has never been merely about an eternal destiny but about eternal life. When Paul writes this letter the Colossians are living an eternal life as they are being transformed by the gospel of Jesus. So you and I are now experiencing eternal life as Christ’s life infuses our life and we are being changed so that he may present us holy and blameless and above reproach. This is why it is difficult to reconcile the notion that one can have the present experience of salvation without actively being transformed by the Lord. Salvation is a present reality as much as it is a future reality.
After explaining this present experience of salvation Paul says something extraordinary about suffering.
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, 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, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.Colossians 1:24–26 ESV
While Paul himself is experiencing the present reality of eternal life, he is also in the midst of suffering. His present circumstances do not change his present status. The Lord is actively working in Paul that he might present Paul as holy and blameless and above reproach. Just as John saw there was a specific number of martyrs before the end would come, so Paul indicates there is a specific amount of suffering to be experienced.
He says that he rejoices in his sufferings. We saw a similar perspective in 2 Timothy 1:8 when he says he is the Lord’s prisoner. While at the time he was in prison chained to a guard and awaiting execution, he recognized that Rome was not sovereign; the Lord Jesus is sovereign and he is in prison on account of the Lord, not Rome. This is why he could rejoice in his suffering: he is in the Lord’s hands.
Paul then says that through his flesh he is “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”. On a first read, that sounds really strange. It doesn’t sound any less strange on your twelfth read, though! What is Christ’s afflictions lacking? We need to recognize that Paul is not saying that the death of Christ is lacking something. The word “afflictions” is never used of Christ’s suffering on the cross. Paul is not suggesting he is atoning for sin in any way. Instead, Paul is saying that God has determined a certain amount of suffering through which the gospel would be proclaimed and since Jesus himself has not suffered all the afflictions that you and I suffer, we participate in this by our suffering. Paul is experiencing a portion of what God has determined—likely a larger portion than most.
Paul connects his suffering to the purposes of God. He says he is filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. This is one of the rare times Paul does not mean “church” in the sense of a local, gathered assembly. He is speaking of the catholic church—the whole church in its fullness. The church is still being built by Jesus and Paul’s sufferings are a means God uses to build that church.
If we understand that building his church involves the entirety of salvation Paul’s suffering, and our suffering, begin to make more sense. The work of God in Christ is the present experience of salvation. When we first believe we are set on the road of sanctification. Over time we are made more and more like Christ. As Paul put it, the Lord is working in us to present us holy and blameless and above reproach. One day that process will be complete, but only when the Lord comes and resurrects us and recreates his world. Then our salvation will be complete. Until then we still experience salvation, just not in its fullness.
What I find so very interesting is Paul’s declaration that his sufferings are part of the means God uses to build his church comes after his declaration of the preeminence of Christ. Rather than a sign that Christ and his gospel are weak, Paul’s suffering demonstrates the power of God for it reflects the suffering of Jesus and his power to overcome that suffering. It demonstrates the power of God to transform his people.
If you are suffering right now, know that your suffering is not in vain. It is not pointless. It is not capricious or random. We trust in the promise of 2 Corinthians 4 when Paul says we carry in our bodies the death of Jesus in order that the life of Jesus may be manifested in us. As our bodies suffer and breakdown and as we suffer in all kinds of ways, the life of Jesus—eternal life!—is manifested in our mortal bodies. Whether your present suffering is in a broken relationship or in an illness or injury, or you suffer from financial struggle or chronic pain, or you suffer simply for being a faithful Christian, God is working in and through that suffering. Paul said this in that text:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison…2 Corinthians 4:16–17 ESV
Suffering may be deep and extremely painful, yet the promise of God in Christ is the outcome of that suffering will cause each one of us to look back and see the incredible blessings that came to us through that suffering. It is only from this eternal perspective that Paul can call our present suffering “a light momentary affliction”. If we look to the fulfillment of his promises we can face these afflictions head on. We can experience some of the joy that awaits us even as we suffer whatever life has brought. In the end we will see that it was simply worth it.