What is lacking of the sufferings of Christ in my flesh

Thu, 24/03/2011 - 18:19
Colossians 1:24

Now I rejoice in the sufferings for your sake and 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…

This verse was alluded to briefly by Peter Wilkinson in a comment relating to the place of suffering in Paul’s thought. My view is that the suffering of the early church, culminating potentially in a death like Jesus’, plays a much more important and limiting part in his theology than we usually allow for. Much of Paul’s eschatology is constructed around the conviction that the church is called to participate in the story of Jesus’ suffering and vindication for the sake of the future of the people of God as it confronted, first, hostile Judaism and, secondly, hostile paganism. This is what the “Son of Man” motif is all about, for example—the inclusion of a righteous, persecuted community in the vindication of the Son of Man.

In this argument Paul makes much of his own suffering, putting himself forward as a model for imitation. In Philippians 3:10-11 he speaks of his desire to share in the sufferings of Christ in order that he might also know the power of his resurrection. Then later he urges the Philippians to “join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (3:17). He writes to the church in Thessalonica saying, “you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction (thlipsei), with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (1 Thess. 1:6-7).

Colossians 1:24 clearly fits somewhere into this argument: there is an analogy between Paul’s suffering and Jesus’s suffering. But the verse has been problematic for commentators because it appears to suggest that Paul somehow thought that the sufferings of Christ were inadequate. He appears to be saying not simply that he was imitating Christ’s sufferings but that he was making up what was lacking in them. This is how most translations read, the ESV for example:

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…

J.D.G. Dunn says that Paul thought “that Christ’s afflictions lack something… and need to be completed in Paul’s flesh”.1

Commentators usually have had recourse to some notion of the “messianic birthpangs” that will accompany the end of the age. This is not altogether inappropriate, but it is misleading. The solution to the problem is actually quite simple, a matter of syntax only, having to do with the position of the phrase “in my flesh” in the sentence.

The ESV, like many translations, moves the phrase forward so that it loses its connection with “what is lacking of the afflictions of the Christ”. The translation I have offered above shows that Paul does not locate the deficiency in Christ’s sufferings but in the extent to which he has replicated those sufferings in his own flesh, in his own experience. He has not yet suffered to the extent that Christ suffered; he has not yet completed his imitation of Christ; his hope, as he expressed in Philippians 3, is that he would imitate Christ ultimately in his death and resurrection.

  • 1. The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (Paternoster, 1996), 115.

Comments

Point well made.  Might it communicate even more clearly to translate it as: 

Now I rejoice in the sufferings for your sake and I fill up those of the Christ's afflictions which are (yet) lacking in my flesh for the sake of his body, which is the church… 

Maybe?  Just trying to connect the lacking and "in my own flesh" more in the English phrasing.  

Thanks.

Thanks, Greg. In English yes. That would resolve the ambiguity further. My translation stuck with the Greek word order. In Greek the phrase “what is lacking of the afflictions of the Christ” is a sequence of genitives (ta hysterēmata tōn thlipseōn tou Christou) and my guess is that it wouldn’t work so well to insert “in my flesh” between ta hysterēmata and tōn thlipseōn tou Christou. But Greek syntax is a pretty murky business.

My first question is to do with the Son of Man narrative here. Unless I am misunderstanding it Andrew, you are saying that at two points in history, first the judgement on Jerusalem and its temple in AD 70, and second with a judgement on Rome, the Son of Man (identified as God's people) was vindicated in the Son of Man (identified as Jesus). The first vindication was in the fulfilment of predictions of imminent judgement made by Jesus, the Son of Man. The second was in predictions made by Paul, especially to do with the day of wrath (Romans 1:18, 2:5 etc), fulfilled at some (indefinable) point, but demonstrated in the adoption by the Roman Empire under Theodosius of the very faith it had tried to destroy.

The fulfilment of the first vindication depends largely on your reading of Matthew 24, and the meaning of parousia (coming) in particular, mentioned uniquely four times there. The erchomai form of coming used in the key LXX Daniel 7:13 passage is also used in Matthew 24:30. The fulfilment of the second vindication depends on your understanding of history and the working of covenant processes. 

The framework then, as I understand it, for reading the New Testament rests on the assumption of a metanarrative to do with the Son of Man taken from Daniel 7, which describes the suffering and vindication of Israel. In the Daniel narrative, the Son of Man's exaltation is contrasted with the fate of the four pagan empires. The same narrative also provides background explanation of events in Daniel 9-12, which also informs Daniel 7. The suffering of the saints (here, faithful Israel) is described in Daniel 7 in their oppression by the little horn which came up amongst the ten horns of the fourth beast.  

So the question for me is: where does Paul associate his own sufferings with the presupposed Son of Man (Daniel) narrative? What explicit reference does he make to Daniel, and Jesus's supposed self-identification with the Son of Man of Daniel 7?

The framework for reading a Son of Man narrative into Paul's autobiography and the biography of the church also presupposes that the narrative came to a decisive and unique climax in AD 70, towards which it was moving, and in the unique turn-around of the Roman Empire, from persecuting to embracing Christianity, which arose from judgement upon the Empire. The first judgement is demonstrable, the second difficult to locate as a climactic event.

Given that AD 70 was a fulfilment of at least part of Matthew 24 and warnings elsewhere in the gospels, and that Rome really did turn to embrace Christianity in the 4th century, is it also true to say that these events were the climax and culmination of something like a NT metanarrative, in gospels, letters and Revelation?

I think it is possible to accept that the first at least (judgement on Jerusalem) figures large by warning and prediction in the NT, but without accepting that it also provides an overarching explanation of the NT, for which the Daniel Son of Man prophecy is a metanarrative.

This needs to be said, because I am in agreement with Andrew that Paul was aware of himself acting out the drama of Jesus in his own life and person, and that this drama was also being acted out in the life of the church.

Where I disagree with Andrew is that this drama came to a climax and conclusion in AD 70 and in the 4th century, in judgement on the main oppressing powers over the church - Jerusalem and Rome. I disagree (in a very friendly way) that since that time in particular, we are in the age of the new creation where different conditions obtain, and where we should not use the core of the NT as narrative, nor its unique injunctions and lifestyle, to apply to our lives now.

I also agree with Andrew that in Philippians and 1 Thessalonians, Paul calls on the churches to be imitators of himself (and the Lord), in enduring suffering for the sake of the gospel, and that this provides a background for what he says in Colossians 1:24. Jesus told his disciples to expect suffering and opposition when he commissioned and sent them out in the gospels, and suffering and opposition continued in the letters and Revelation, but not without exception (eg the prayer in 1 Timothy 2:2, Revelation 4:10). 

The question has to be asked, however, in what way things were changed by the judgement on Jerusalem, and the turn-around of Rome. There is no doubt that the judgement on Jerusalem brought actual relief for the church from Jewish persecution. The turn-around of Rome speaks for itself. But were these events the unique horizon of the NT writers, and of the NT as writings which speak to people beyond those times? Were the events a unique sign or guarantee of the church's protection and survival, and the conclusion of a never to be repeated era in the history of the church? Did they in that sense uniquely fulfil NT prophecy as prediction, and uniquely bring an end to one era, and the beginning of another, in which the church knew that the issue of its survival was settled once for all? Was this the unique mission which Jesus came to settle for the church, the reconstituted people of God?

 

All this is necessary to say before coming to the interpretation of Colossians 1:24. Turning now to that verse. Paul was not simply describing the drama of Jesus as something he experienced in his own person.  He was also experiencing this drama 'for the church'. If this was the narrative of Jesus which he was acting out, which I think it was, it benefited the church, because God's power was demonstrated through his suffering, just as it was for Jesus. It also acted as an example for the church to follow, as the references Andrew has provided indicate.

Were Paul and the church acting out the drama of Jesus in a time-frame which had a 4th century terminus? I don't think so. This drama of suffering continued for many who wanted to live as faithful followers of Christ beyond the 4th century, where the church was now the persecuting power. It continues into the present time. It has been said that more Christians died for their faith, worldwide, in the 20th century, than any preceding century, and this was not simply because the church was larger in numbers than before. The drama continues to be played out in the church.

Did the suffering church need to know that its survival was assured? It did, but not through AD 70 or judgement on Rome. It needed only look to the Jesus who was already glorified as King of Kings before both of these events, with his reign in heaven expressed as a reign on earth through the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, where timid disciples became bold apostles. Roman persecution in particular was accompanied by church growth, not questions about the church's survival (though Porphyrius did ask this question). Martyrdom became the recruiting agent for the church.

So, yes to Andrew's interpretation of Colossians 1:24, but no to the proposal that it is set against a limited interpretation of the drama of Jesus being acted out in his own life and that of the church.

With this now modified interpretation in mind, I also raised the question in my post about how we should view the drama of Christ in the church where persecution has not been the norm. I still believe that the drama of Christ is acted out in every believer, where the principle elements are the life, ministry, death, resurrection and outpoured Spirit, and eventually, glorification. Even in 'non-persecuting' parts of the world, opposition and difficulty of many kinds are encountered by those who want to live as followers of Jesus. Perhaps, also,worldwide and through history, absence of persecution represents something of a minority experience for faithful followers of Jesus.

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