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.