(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

How Paul made up what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions

One of the passages that crops up in discussions of what Paul meant when he talked about being conformed to or transformed into the image of Christ—and to whom that language applied—is Colossians 1:24. Davo mentioned it in a comment recently, and I have been meaning to get back to it.

The ESV translation of this verse is fairly typical: “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….”

On the face of it, Paul appears to be saying that Christ’s sufferings were somehow insufficient and that he himself needed to suffer in order to make up the deficit.

Various solutions to this problem have been proposed, among them:

  • There really was something lacking in the redemptive suffering of Christ; Paul bore away the sufferings “which Christ could not carry away completely” (Windisch).
  • The phrase tōn thlipseōn tou Christou means “afflictions for the sake of Christ”…
  • …or “afflictions which resemble those of Christ”. According to Abbott Christ’s afflictions “are regarded as the type of all those that are endured by His followers on behalf of the church”. Getting warm.
  • The “afflictions of Christ” are those suffered in mystical union with him (Deissmann, Schmid).
  • The church must endure a fixed amount of “messianic suffering” or “birth-pangs”) before the parousia (Best, Moule, O’Brien). Paul is contributing “to the sum total of these eschatological afflictions” (O’Brien).
  • The deficiency has to do with the practical outworking of the significance of Jesus’ death: Paul’s suffering is the means by which the church is being built up (Percy). Davo’s own suggestion is along these lines—that the completion of what was lacking had to do not with “redemptive efficacy” but with “breadth of reach”—the extension of the church in the “world beyond Israel”.
  • Paul was assigned a certain “measure” of suffering when he was commissioned by the risen Lord—a measure that he has not yet filled up. Marcus Barth qualifies this interpretation: “Intended is not the suffering in itself, but rather the suffering endured with joy to reveal the strength of God, because in this God verifies the gospel proclaimed through his saints.”1

But the simplest solution by far, it seems to me—hinted at but not properly grasped in the list of interpretive options above—is to suppose that Paul is measuring his own sufferings as an apostle against the full extent of Christ’s sufferings.

A close rendering of the syntax of the Greek text would look like this:

I fill up what is lacking of the afflictions of the Christ in my flesh for the sake of his body, which is the church…

The difference lies in the position of the phrase “in my flesh”. In the Greek it immediately follows “the afflictions of the Christ”. The ESV (cf. RSV, NRSV, NIV) moves the phrase to the beginning of the clause. Other versions—the ASV, for example—leave it where it is.

It now becomes possible to take “in my flesh” as an adjectival (or possibly adverbial) phrase modifying “the afflictions of Christ”. Paul is personally (“in his own flesh”) experiencing much of what Christ suffered; but there is still something lacking; there is a deficit to be made up.

The point is that in the course of his apostolic ministry for the sake of the churches he has endured considerable afflictions (cf. Rom. 5:3; 8:35; 2 Cor. 1:8; 6:4; 7:4; Eph. 3:13; Phil. 1;17; 1 Thess. 1:6; 3:7). But he has not suffered to the extent contemplated in Philippians 3:10: “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead”.

What is lacking of the “afflictions of Christ” in Paul’s own flesh at this point is the “becoming like him in his death”. Paul will be fully conformed to the image of Christ only when—or if—he loses his life for the sake of Christ. If that indeed happens, then he will also know the power of his resurrection; he will attain the Jewish hope of the resurrection from the dead (cf. Acts 23:6; 24:15, 21).

So how did Paul make up what was lacking in the afflictions of Christ? The earliest testimony to his martyrdom comes from Ignatius, who hoped to follow in his footsteps:

I know who I am and to whom I am writing. I am a convict; you have received mercy. I am in danger; you are secure. You are the highway of those who are being killed for God’s sake; you are fellow initiates of Paul, who was sanctified, who was approved, who is deservedly blessed—may I be found in his footsteps when I reach God!—who in every letter remembers you in Christ Jesus. (Ign. Eph. 12:1–2)

  • 1. M. Barth, Colossians, (1974), 295.