How does Paul fill up what is lacking of Christ’s sufferings?

My friend Joel White—well, technically I suppose he’s the brother of my friend Wes, but the brother of my friend is my friend—kindly sent me a copy of an article he wrote on Colossians 1:24 because we had a chat about this once. It’s a pet theme of mine. The article is entitled “Paul Completes the Servant’s Sufferings (Colossians 1:24)” and was published last year in the Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters (6.2). This post is really just a personal rejoinder to Joel.

The article offers a solution to this puzzling verse, and not one that I had come across before.

Now I rejoice in the sufferings for your sake, and I complete (antanaplērō) what is lacking of the afflictions of the Christ in my flesh for the sake of his body, which is the church.

The theological problem is immediately apparent. How could Paul think that there was a deficiency in Christ’s sufferings? How could he be so presumptuous as to imagine that he could remedy the matter?

Joel’s argument hangs, in the first place, on the precise interpretation of the rare verb antanaplēroō, which occurs only here in the Greek Bible and is found only thirteen times in extant Greek literature between the fourth century BC and the third century AD.

The main part of the verb, plēroō, means “to fill”. There are two prefixes added to it. The ana has not much more than an intensive force, but White thinks that the anti makes a much more significant semantic contribution. On the basis principally of a 2015 study of the usage of the word by Bruce Clark, White argues that anti has the sense of “over against”; it adds the idea of complementing or completing:

Clark notes that wherever the doubly prefixed form appears, its usage conforms to the following parameters: (1) a situation arises, in which, for whatever reasons, a prior actor has made an incomplete contribution to a desired sum; and (2) in that situation the verb ἀνταναπληρόω describes the action of a second actor, who supplies the amount needed to attain the entire sum from a source that is not accessible to the first actor. Both Kremer and Clark insist that the word necessarily implies that (1) the missing amount is being supplied in full; and (2) it comes from a source distinct from that of the initial contribution. (95)

Joel then considers the three main lines of interpretation that have been proposed. They correspond to the three possible locations for the deficient sufferings: Paul, the church, or Christ.

1. Paul is ‘speaking about a lack of “Christ-sufferings” manifested in his flesh, that is, his own sufferings’ (97). He therefore means that he has “not yet suffered the full amount that was divinely predetermined for him”.

2. Paul means that his suffering is part of the fixed quantity of “messianic woes” that, according to Jewish thought, the people of God would have to suffer before the messianic age would commence. So Paul would rejoice because “the more of this predetermined amount of suffering he incurs, the less others, including the believers in Colossae, will have to endure and the sooner the glories of the messianic age will materialize” (98).

3. Paul means, rather shockingly, that there really is something lacking in the sufferings of Christ and that he—and perhaps only he—can make good that deficiency.

The first two interpretations are rejected, mainly because they do not conform to the meaning of antanaplēroō that has been advocated. But Joel thinks that the third option can be made to work, only with an interesting twist.

He notes that in this passage Paul twice refers to himself as a “servant” or diakonos (Col. 1:23, 25), and suggests that Paul understood himself not only as the servant of Isaiah’s second servant song, sent as a light to the Gentiles (Is. 49:1-13; cf. Acts 13:47; Gal. 1:15; 2 Cor. 5:17-6:2; 7:2; Phil. 2:16), but also a suffering servant after the pattern of the fourth servant song (Is. 52:13-53:12).

Joel is careful to avoid attributing atoning suffering to Paul, but he highlights several parallels between this passage and Paul’s account of the affliction that he endured in the course of his apostolic ministry. So the thesis is this:

because Paul felt that he had been called to fulfill what was still lacking with regard to the Servant’s commission in the second Servant Song…, it is not surprising that he was equally convinced of his calling to take on part of the sufferings that were prophesied for the Servant in the fourth Servant Song…. (105)

I don’t think Joel notes this, but it looks like a view that BDAG (s.v. ἀνταναπληρόω) finds in Lightfoot: “After receiving his apostolic assignment, Paul assumes the burden of sufferings that would befall Christ were the latter to undertake the apostolic mission in person.”

The proposal is attractive in many ways and merits more serious consideration. I am not yet persuaded, however, that I need to abandon my own view, which is (I think) a variation on the first of the three interpretations that Joel reviews. I think that Paul is talking about his own sufferings, only with a twist.

I argued a long time ago in a Tyndale Bulletin article (“The Pattern of Christ’s Sufferings: Colossians 1:24 and Philippians 3:10-11”) that Paul regards “the afflictions of Christ as the model or pattern for his own sufferings and that the deficiency in his flesh is the extent to which he has not yet suffered as Christ suffered” (66-67). I still think this argument holds good, though no doubt it could be improved on.

1. There is still a case for thinking that, given its position in the sentence, the phrase “in my flesh” qualifies “what is lacking of the afflictions of the Christ” rather than the verb. In other words, the deficiency is not in Christ’s afflictions, as though Christ had not suffered enough, but in “the afflictions of Christ in my flesh“. Paul does not mean that there is any deficiency in Christ’s sufferings. He means that he has not yet suffered to the extent that Christ suffered.

2. That Paul thought of himself as imitating or emulating the sufferings of Jesus is apparent from other passages. For example, the apostles “share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings”, they “always carry in the body the dying of Jesus” (2 Cor. 1:5; 4:10).

The most significant parallel, however, is Philippians 3:8-11. Paul states his clear desire to share in Christ’s sufferings, to become “like him in his death”, in order that he may also know “the power of his resurrection”. Rejection by those who “mutilate the flesh” (Phil. 3:2), humiliation, imprisonment (cf. Col. 4:3, 18), conceivably in Rome, and death would obviously count as completing Paul’s personal experience of the sufferings of Jesus. He has to die for Jesus’ sake if he is also going to experience the power of his resurrection. Paul is not talking about a general resurrection of the dead here, in my view. He is talking about a resurrection of the martyrs at the parousia, and if the parousia happens before he dies, he will be cheated of resurrection.

3. I find it difficult to think that Paul would have regarded the fact that Christ did not himself suffer as part of a mission to the Gentiles as a lack or deficiency. It’s not out of the question that Paul saw his mission in the Greek-Roman world running in parallel to Jesus’ mission to Israel—there is probably more to be made of this. But the significance of Jesus for the Gentiles lay entirely in his resurrection, lordship and parousia (cf. Rom. 1:1-4; Phil. 2:9-11; 1 Thess. 1:9-10). There seems no good reason for Paul to stress the point that Jesus had not himself directly suffered in this regard.

4. On the assumption that the “missing amount… comes from a source distinct from that of the initial contribution” Joel argues that antanaplēroō must mean that Paul’s suffering completes the Messiah’s sufferings. The lexicographical point may be correct, but the use of the verb is just as well accounted for by the analogy between Christ’s sufferings and Paul’s sufferings. The actual deficiency is in Paul’s sufferings, but since he is modelling his own suffering on Christ’s suffering, he is at the same fulfilling what is lacking in the template.

In conclusion, therefore, I would reiterate my view that this verse is evidence of an expectation on Paul’s part, going back to his encounter with the risen Christ (cf. Acts 9:16), that he would suffer to the full extent that Jesus suffered, in hope of sharing in his resurrection and glory.

The eschatological context is important, but I would put the stress on the expectation of kingdom, the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations, rather than on the extension of salvation to the Gentiles, which I think is secondary.

Paul no doubt thought of his own experience as paradigmatic in this respect, albeit in a secondary sense. But it is clear too that he believed the churches in general would have to suffer with Christ, in the hope of being vindicated with Christ, if the eschatological outcome was to be achieved. So we read in 1 Thessalonians 1:6-7: “you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia”.