The shortfall in Christ’s sufferings: mystical union, messianic woes, the hardships of evangelism, or none of the above?

Read time: 4 minutes
The martyrdom of Paul the Apostle

On The Gospel Coalition site Phil Thompson asks what Paul means when he says, “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” (Col. 1:24). How could anything be lacking in Christ’s afflictions? And how could Paul think that he was a fit person to make up the deficit?

Two solutions are considered and dismissed.

The “mystical union” view, associated with Calvin, says that Christ continues to suffer in the sufferings of his body, but this cannot explain why Christ’s sufferings need to be completed.

The “messianic woes” view, “based on some alleged parallels in Jewish literature,” asserts that Paul’s suffering is eating away at the fixed quota of suffering that the church must endure before the eschaton. But 1) this sounds like arrogance on Paul’s part; 2) Paul thinks that his suffering directly benefits the Colossians; and 3) the supposed Jewish parallels are not very good.

So Thompson recommends a third view—a new consensus that has emerged over the last decade.

He thinks that there is a link between filling up (antanaplērō) Christ’s afflictions in verse 24 and making the gospel fully known (plērōsai) in verse 25.

The connection is mission. Paul is saying he’s carrying out his God-given Gentile mission. And in carrying out that mission, he’s making the message fully known geographically, taking it to the ends of his known world and establishing a gospel beachhead across the Empire.

The gap that needs to be filled up is the one between the present state of affairs and the “suffering necessary to establish a gospel presence among all the Gentiles.” Paul is making up that gap by taking the gospel to the heart of the Roman Empire, and in the process the believers in Colossae have benefited.

Thompson doesn’t attribute this “consensus” to anyone in particular, so it’s difficult to check the details. It seems to me that it fails on similar grounds to the “messianic woes” theory: it doesn’t explain why this is a filling up of the sufferings of the Christ rather than of the missional church.

So I recommend a fourth view. I proposed this a long time ago in a Tyndale Bulletin article that is actually listed in The Gospel Coalition’s resource library. Thompson should have done a bit more research!

The basic point is very simple. English translations tend to change the Greek word order. Thompson quotes the ESV:

…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.

The Greek runs differently:

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

If “in my flesh” is moved to the beginning of the statement, it appears to qualify “I fill up,” and “Christ’s afflictions” are understood to be “for the sake of his body.”

But in the Greek “in my flesh” more naturally attaches to “the sufferings of the Christ.” Paul is saying, in effect, that he has personally—in his flesh—not yet suffered to the extent that Christ suffered. He rejoices in his sufferings because he is being more closely conformed to the pattern of Christ’s sufferings.

This is exactly what lies behind the argument about conformity to the “image” of Christ in Romans 8:29 and 2 Corinthians 3:18. The “image of Christ” is not ideal redeemed humanity but suffering servanthood—especially apostolic servanthood—to the point of death.

More directly, the interpretation is supported by what Paul says in Philippians 3:9-10. He repudiates his credentials as a Pharisee in order to gain Christ and “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.”

This explains Colossians 1:24 exactly. It is Paul’s deepest desire, his driving apostolic ambition, to experience fully what Christ experienced—to share in his sufferings, undergo the same death, in the hope that he too many attain the resurrection from the dead. In other words, he desires to fill up what is lacking in his own flesh, in his own experience, in his own life, of the suffering of Jesus to the point of death on a Roman cross.

Samuel Conner | Mon, 10/12/2020 - 17:27 | Permalink

Thank you, Andrew; this is helpful.

For as long as I can remember thinking about this, it has seemed to me that one ought to read Col 1:24 with Acts 9:16 in mind. Though it’s not clear to me whether “I will show him” implies that Paul was shown at the outset what lay ahead of him in terms of what he “must suffer”, or the “I will show him” was more of a progressive unveiling as it happened.

But it’s hard for me to escape the sense that Paul believed from the outset that a lot of suffering for the sake of Jesus’ name lay ahead of him. He embraced that as a “grace” (as in Phil 1:29), a privilege. It makes perfect sense to me that Paul perceived a “deficiency” in his conformity to Christ’s sufferings, and pressed on to fill that up.

Phil Thompson | Fri, 03/05/2021 - 22:19 | Permalink

Hey Andrew, thanks for interacting with my article. I just stumbled across your post and thought I’d bounce back a four items.

First, I’ve read your article several times in my work to wrestle with this verse over the years and have appreciated your take and insights. I certainly provided nowhere near a full catalogue of the interpretations of the passage given the constraints of a popular article and the vast array of minority views on the verse. Instead, I focused on views that are incredibly common in the field (i.e., the mystical union view was the predominant view until the mid-1900s, and the messianic woes view dominated the scene from CFD Moule forward). Please do not read my omission of your reading as a slight. 

Second, if you’d like to chase some of the sources, a few that would understand the text in a missional sense would be:

Hanna Stettler, ‘An Interpretation of Colossians 1:24 in the Framework of Paul’s Mission Theology’ in Jostein Ådna and Hans Kvalbein, eds., The Mission of the Early Church to Jews and Gentiles (Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, 127; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000), pp. 185-208.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006.

McKnight, Scot. The Letter to the Colossians. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018.

A sort of variation of this view was also popularized by John Piper in the second edition of his Desiring God. You can pick up this sort of missional orientation, albeit somewhat generalized, as far back as Chrysostom (“[Paul] will not have the sufferings to be his own, but his, through the desire to reconcile these persons to [Christ]”).

Third, related to your handling of the passage, I’ll make a few observations. I would value your feedback as I sharpen my own understanding of the text and of your view in particular:

  • I would categorize your view (along with several others, such as that of Barth/Blanke) as “linguistic loopholes.” In other words, they seem in my opinion to overly exploit a definition or aspect of the grammar to create a sense of the text that avoids the problematic “face value” reading of the text. I further categorize them as such because they do not (again, in my opinion) provide a holistic interpretation of the verse on their own. For example, a missional interpretation of the verse would work just as well if the prepositional phrase is attached to “fill up” or with “afflictions.”
  • My primary frustration with every other view than the missional view (and perhaps that of Bruce T. Clark) is that there is little-to-no interface between the interpretation of 1:24 and the surrounding context. According to your reading, Paul is talking about his own ambition to suffer and die like Jesus in 1:24 and then (almost adversatively) begins talking about his (very much living and active) mission to announce the gospel to the Gentiles in 1:25. The connection between the plr-roots in 1:24 and 1:25 remains untouched. Although I want to make sense of 1:24, I want to prioritize views that connect to the broader context of the epistle.
  • In terms of the vocabulary of the verse, I struggle somewhat to see how your interpretation makes sense of “filling up” and “for the sake of his body.” In terms of the former, if Paul is saying that he’s “filling up to completion” by desiring a martyr’s death (per contra a natural death), I would wonder (1) why Paul seems to treat this as an unusual act or special calling, and (2) why Paul seems to treat this as an ongoing and present act rather than something that would happen eventually in the future. In terms of the latter phrase, if we read the text as you suggest, the others-centric nature of Paul’s suffering is sidelined; he is primarily speaking of his own personal desire to die like Jesus. It’s not entirely obvious how Paul’s martyrdom benefits the church—especially since his life of ministry and mission has done so much for the sake of the church.

Finally, your main critique of my interpretation is that I did not helpfully explain how I would view the afflictions as those “of Christ” and not “of the missional church.” I agree that I didn’t deal as well with that point as I should have. Here’s an attempt:

Jesus Christ experienced affliction in his ministry and death to fully proclaim the good news among the Jewish people (cf. Rom 15:8). Paul is filling up those very same afflictions in his ministry (and future martyrdom) by fully proclaiming the good news among the Gentiles (cf. Rom 15:18–19). The afflictions of Jesus Christ are thus properly said to be his entire sufferings that are “incomplete” in that they haven’t been extended by proclamation to and participation among the Gentiles. He has left a specific and attainable parallel set of sufferings to Paul specifically that can be extended to the sufferings of the missional Church as she brings the good news to the whole world principially.

My interpretation wouldn’t rule out that a cruciform martyrdom is on Paul’s mind here, but that it was secondary to his primary point, viz. that his afflictions are following the same missional paradigm of Jesus.

Any critiques on my thinking would be welcome here and/or via my email.

@Phil Thompson:

Phil, thanks for getting in touch about this. I really appreciate the careful response.

1. Your first point strikes me as peculiar. I would have thought that an interpretation that relies on the actual grammatical structure of the verse and doesn’t rearrange the words is the “face value” reading of the text. How is reading the text as it stands exploiting a “linguistic loophole”? It seems to me that the onus lies with interpreters who dissociate “in my flesh” from “the afflictions of the Christ” to explain themselves.

I also don’t see how it is advantageous to have the prepositional expression work with “fill up” or “afflictions.” That is not holistic. It is just a failure to make an exegetical decision.

2. Paul refers to the completion of the afflictions of Christ in his flesh in 1:24 in order to explain why he rejoices in his sufferings. The contextual question, therefore, is: why does he say that he rejoices in his sufferings? Well, he says, “For I want you to know how great a struggle (agōna) I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face…” (Col. 2:1; cf. Phil. 1:30).

As in the letter to the Philippians, which provides an important parallel for my reading of Colossians 1:24 in Philippians 3:10-11, he is acutely conscious of the impression that his imprisonment gives. It is important that he provides a good theological rationale for his sufferings—for the disgrace and humiliation. He rejoices in his sufferings because he suffers for the sake of the church, but also because it means he is being more closely conformed to the image of God’s Son, in the hope of sharing also in his resurrection from the dead.

Whether we should perceive a significant connection between antanaplērō in verse 24 and plērōsai in verse 25 is debatable. Such coincidences happen in speech without always being meaningful. But in any case, even if we allow that the recurrence highlights a missional theme, that is not at all incompatible with the argument that Paul thinks of himself as replicating Christ’s sufferings in his own flesh.

He is talking here not about the mission of the church but about his own personal apostolic vocation. On the one hand, he is suffering as Christ suffered “for the sake of his body”; on the other, he became a servant in order that, precisely through his suffering (cf. Acts 9:16), he would fulfil the word of God, which was specifically to reveal the mystery that the nations now also had reason to hope in Christ. There we have, I think, a solidly contextual basis for my emphasis on Paul’s intense and rather idiosyncratic awareness of the significance of his suffering.

3. I don’t think that Paul’s emphasis on his suffering sidelines his mission. On the contrary, as I’ve just suggested, and as the Lord disclosed to Ananias, Paul’s suffering and his personal vocation were closely linked. So, yes, I think that Paul thought of himself and his colleagues as having an exceptional calling, characterised above all by suffering. This is pretty much the theme of Romans 8:18-39 and of the whole of 2 Corinthians. And why wouldn’t this be an “ongoing and present act”? The suffering of the apostolic community was an ongoing reality.

You say: “It’s not entirely obvious how Paul’s martyrdom benefits the church—especially since his life of ministry and mission has done so much for the sake of the church.” But isn’t that precisely the quandary that he wrestles with in Philippians:

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. (Phil. 1:21–24)

It now strikes me, having considered your closing paragraphs, that we are not so far apart on this matter. The difference is that I think that Paul is much more focused on his personal experience and desire to emulate the martyrdom of Jesus and share, if possible, in his resurrection. I think it’s fair to say that Paul the apostle is the subject of a good deal of what he wrote. He was not writing theological or missional handbooks for the church in millennia to come.

@Andrew Perriman:

Andrew, thanks for engaging with me on this. I do think your final analysis is accurate—that we are quite close together in our interpretation of the verse. You are placing the emphasis on Paul’s personally fulfilling desire to walk in the suffering steps of Jesus all the way to martyrdom. I am placing the emphasis on Paul’s mission-fulfilling desire to walk in the suffering steps of Jesus all the way to complete proclamation of the gospel (and, no doubt, martyrdom was very much a distinct possibility at the end of that “filling up”).

I’ll do my best to weigh-in on the helpful critiques you’ve raised.

1. By “face value,” I refer to the obvious problem posed by the phrase “filling up what is lacking of the afflictions of the Christ.” As those who are going to struggle with that phrase due to our theological convictions formed by the broader Pauline corpus and the whole of Scripture, what we do with the grammar in that phrase (or the context of the phrase) is going to be driven by a measure of self-interest. So I’m cautious of what seems like linguistic slight-of-hand that immediately neuters the problem of the phrase (one with diverging interpretations since at least the 5th century).

In this category, I place bifurcation (Lightfoot’s ministerial sufferings not mediatorial sufferings), genitive use (Schweizer’s “afflictions on the behalf of Christ”), complex redefinition (e.g., Lightfoot, Kremer, Clark, etc. viewing the double-prefixed verb as “filling up in turn” and, therefore, largely solving the problem of the phrase), and sentence structuring (e.g., Barth/Blanke “filling up what my flesh lacks of the afflictions” or your “the-afflictions-of-Christ-in-my-flesh”) solutions. None of these loopholes in and of themselves present an obvious solution to the face-value problem of the passage and usually require some additional explanation or combination with one of the other views of the passage to truly provide much value (i.e., potentially helpful circumstantial evidence in need of other evidence and a convincing narrative but not direct and exculpatory evidence in their own right).

To push a little further here, I do not see your view as the obvious reading of the verse for a number of reasons:

  1. It is by far the least common route that translators and interpreters have taken for this verse, even when alternatives close to your own been considered (cf. Harris). The majority isn’t always right, but if your view has not been the obvious reading for the majority of scholars, we should be cautious not to place the burden of proof on the majority.
  2. In order to read the verse in your manner, you must construe “in my body” as modifying exclusively, in an attributive manner, the whole of the phrase “of the afflictions of Christ.” Normally for such a reading to be obvious, we would anticipate another article before the preposition (i.e., τῶν ἐν τῇ σαρκί μου) to make it evident and to avoid ambiguity. Although there are some exceptions to that norm (perhaps if we see “the afflictions” as carrying a verbal force we might be able to put a foot in the door), the natural reading of the prepositional phrase, however, is adverbial, modifying the main verb (“filling up”). I’m not ruling out that you may have found the rare exception, but I would want to see a clear trend of Paul using the kind of “verb + articular object + articular genitives + anarthrous attributive prepositional phrase(s)” before confidently positing this interpretation. Without a larger sample-set of these kinds of constructions, I would certainly avoid placing the burden of proof on the more standard adverbial reading.
  3. In order to read the verse in your manner, you would not only apply this exception to the first prepositional phrase but also to the second (“for his body”). In other words, I would understand you to read: “of the afflictions of Christ [attributive: specifically, the ones] in my body [parallel attributive: also, specifically, the ones he suffered] for the sake of his body.” Whereas the first attributive narrows or limits the realm of Christ’s afflictions (usually necessitating an article), the second attributive doubles-back and addresses the full benefit of those same afflictions (perhaps not necessitating the article). Not only do these two attributes seem to be contrastive in their usage, but they would also need to be seen as double-exceptions to the norm, albeit more justified in the latter than in the former case.
  4. To a lesser extent, the context of 1:22 provides a verb modified by an incredibly similar phrase (ἐν τῷ σώματι τῆς σαρκὸς αὐτοῦ). Although we don’t have the intervening object and genitive construction, the parallel prepositional phrase undoubtedly modifies the verb. If Paul intends an inverted parallel construction in 1:24 (paralleling his work to announce the reconciliation to the nations with Christ’s work of affecting that reconciliation), then we ought to expect that the anarthrous prepositional phrase would follow the same, standard, adverbial model.

Those would be my reasons for seeing your reading as a viable yet unlikely possibility for reading the verse.

2a. That Paul in Philippians 3:10–11 sees his life of suffering as a gradual movement toward and culmination in a conformity with the death of Christ seems to be a reasonable interpretation of that text. In Philippians 3, the end or goal of that suffering is clearly in view—he is pressing toward a martyrdom and resurrection that parallels that of Christ. I, however, find Philippians 1:21–30 helpful in any attempt to parallel 3:10–11 with Colossians. In chapter 1, Paul clearly sees the value in that process of conformity moving rapidly toward its end, but he sees the missional necessity in remaining, continuing, and suffering (a gift that the Philippians join with Paul in executing). Thus, for Paul, martyrdom is personally “more better” (μᾶλλον κρεῖσσον) for him and his spiritual conformity to Christ’s death, but remaining “in the flesh” (ἐν τῇ σαρκὶ) is contrasted as a status that serves as a benefit “for you” (διʼ ὑμᾶς). Thus, when we read Philippians 1 and Philippians 3 together, we see, yes, a gradual conformity in sufferings moving toward an end of martyrdom, but we see the remaining in the flesh as the status that brings maximum benefit to the church (not martyrdom). Thus, when we apply Philippians 1 and 3 to Colossians 1:24, it makes no sense that Paul is talking about martyrdom in Colossians 1:24, because such an act would not be “for you … for his body.” Instead, his remaining and ministering physically would be beneficial to them, therefore pointing us away from any notion of martyrdom in Colossians 1:24 and away from a close parallel with the more personal interests of Philippians 3 and toward the more missional interests of Philippians 1.

2b. That Paul uses the orally obvious and uncommon (i.e., not a necessary grammatical element nor a heavily used Pauline term) πληροω root twice within a 33-word span is hard to dismiss. See 2a for how I would see a gospel-expanding sense here to be contrastive with a more martyrdom-centric understanding. But if the “filling” of 1:25 is the same sort of “filling” in 1:24, then we’re pushed to the more others-centric sense of 1:24 (“for you … for his body”) that seems natural.

2c. That Paul had an idiosyncratic understanding of his sufferings is beyond doubt. The apostolic apologia material in his epistles bears this out incredibly well. That this self-understanding included the expectation of martyrdom and its personal value in his relationship with Christ is also undoubted. But there is another angle to Paul’s self-understanding of suffering: the missional necessity of suffering as a means to yet another end—the establishment of the gospel message in the heart of the known world (cf. the parallel between Rom 15:19 and Col 1:25). Thus, his conformity to Christ’s sufferings included more than a martyrdom component (in view in Phil 3 and Acts 9:16) that was personally beneficial but also a missional component (in view in Col 1:24 and Acts 9:15) that was beneficial to the church—and especially the Gentiles! So, to clarify, I’m not saying that Paul did not have a spiritual understanding of cruciformity that undergirded his personal theology of suffering (cf. Gorman). Far from it! What I’m suggesting is that personal spiritual benefits were not primarily in view here in Colossians 1:24.

 3. Further, I don’t believe that seeing some aspect of Philippians-3-like conformity occurring in Colossians 1:24 is inherently or necessarily an impediment to the missional thrust of Colossians 1:24–25, but I do find it jarring and contrastive with the others-centric context, as noted in 2a, above.

To sum up some of the categories I’ve mentioned as best I can:

  • The mystical union interpreters have no quota that must be filled.
  • The messianic woes view sees a quota of eschatological sufferings that must be filled—future oriented.
  • The mimetic view (which I would see you as leaning toward) sees a quota of personal sufferings that must be fulfilled—self-oriented.
  • The missional view sees a quota of spatial missionary suffering that must be fulfilled—Gentile-oriented.

There is some cross-pollination here in my mind between a mimetic and missional view, perhaps in a more general “apostolic” sense (e.g., Flemington) or perhaps in a sort of “participatory” sense (e.g., Davey) where I could see your emphasis and handling of the text playing nicely as well.

It also occurred to me that my appeal to the recent surge in the missional sense of this passage probably could use more sources, but I did want to at least point to Campbell and Beale as two other exemplars in this trend if those would be helpful as you evaluate that general bent.

As always, your critique and feedback is incredibly helpful as I refine my own approach to the text. You’ve forced me to go back and do some deep-dives on the grammar of the text that are helping me nuance my interpretation far better. I appreciate the opportunity and the dialogue!

~ Phil


Phil, this is very thorough. Thanks. I’ll see if I can take it in stages, starting in this comment with the four reasons that you give under the first point for not seeing my view as the obvious reading, in the hope of filling up what was lacking in my previous efforts.

1. There’s not much to be said here, except perhaps that interpreters were so flummoxed by the irregularity of the phrase “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” that they couldn’t think straight. The Vulgate sticks to the Greek word order: adimpleo ea quae desunt passionum Christi in carne mea pro corpore eius quod est ecclesia. Likewise Tyndale” “Now ioye I in my soferinges which I suffre for you and fulfill that which is behynde of the passions of Christ in my flesshe for his bodies sake which is the congregacion .” Limited research suggests that the RSV was the first ET to relocate “in my flesh.” But the Luther Bible has: “Nun freue ich mich in meinem Leiden, das ich für euch leide, und erstatte an meinem Fleisch, was noch mangelt an Trübsalen in Christo, für seinen Leib, welcher ist die Gemeinde.”

2. I wouldn’t argue now that ἐν τῇ σαρκί μου modifies “the afflictions of Christ”—at least, not directly. Given the place of en tēi sarki mou in the sentence and its distance from the main verb, we might take the view that the whole phrase, “I fill up what is lacking of the afflictions of the messiah” is a statement about what is happening in Paul’s “flesh.” But I think that there is a better line of attack.

Taking my cue from your “foot in the door” remark, I observe that ὑστέρημα (“need,” “lack,” “want”) is a verbal noun. The -μα ending normally signifies the result of an action. I would suggest, therefore, that the prepositional expression “in my flesh” attaches not to “the afflictions of the messiah” but to τὰ ὑστερήματα. This seems to me to work very well grammatically.

We have a similar construction (verbal noun ending in -μα + qualifying prepositional expression) in John 6:13: they “filled twelve baskets with fragments from (κλασμάτων ἐκ) the five barley loaves.” Also: “every branch in me” (πᾶν κλῆμα ἐν ἐμοί) (Jn. 15:2); “the judgment from (κρίμα ἐξ) one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift (χάρισμα ἐκ) from many trespasses brought justification” (Rom. 5:16); we “were buried therefore with him by baptism into (διὰ τοῦ βαπτίσματος εἰς) the death” (Rom. 6:4); “that there may be no division in (σχίσμα ἐν) the body” (1 Cor. 12:25); “an appeal to (ἐπερώτημα εἰς) God” (1 Pet. 3:21). Perhaps even “I rejoice in the sufferings for your sake (παθήμασιν ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν)” in Colossians 1:24 is an example of an adverbial prepositional phrase with a verbal noun. Is it the rejoicing that is for their sake or the suffering?

3. I don’t find this convincing. The contrast between “in my flesh” and “for the sake of his body” is hardly crippling. In fact, I don’t see how it’s a problem at all. Why shouldn’t Paul suffer personally in his flesh for the sake of the body of the church—as he says in Philippians 1:21-24? Besides, if we take τὰ ὑστερήματα as a verbal idea qualified by “in my flesh,” “for the sake of his body quite naturally links back to the main verb. So, for clarity: he fills up for the sake of the body what is lacking in his flesh of the afflictions of Christ.

Why is he prepared to suffer martyrdom? Partly, because he believes that his Lord has called him to this. Partly, because the “filling up,” as a consequence of his faithfulness to the proclamation of the gospel, benefits the church.

The verb ἀνταναπληρῶ means to complete, not to contribute to the completion of something. Whatever Paul is talking about, he thought that he could do it all himself, in his own flesh, which only really makes sense if the completion of what was lacking in Christ’s sufferings was confined to his own person. If he were thinking of the mission, he would have to include the suffering of the other apostles. Dio Cassius, for example, uses ἀνταναπληρῶ for the complete provision of what is lacking:

You did not quarrel at all about titles, but applied them all to him, feeling that they were inadequate to his merits, and desiring that whatever each of them, in the light of customary usage, lacked of being a complete expression of honour and authority might be supplied (ἀνταναπληρωθῇ) by what the rest contributed. (Dio Cassius 44.48.2)

4. It’s possible that “Now… ἀνταναπληρῶ what is lacking of the afflictions of the messiah in my flesh for the sake of his body” (1:24) echoes “now ἀποκατήλλαξεν in the body of his flesh through the death” (1:22) That’s an interesting thought. But if anything, it supports my argument. Paul explicitly reinterprets “body” for his context (“which is the church”), but the contrast otherwise is between the death in “his flesh” and the suffering in “my flesh,” and he is conscious of the fact that there is still something lacking in his own experience. Therefore, his desire is to know Christ, share in his sufferings, and become like him in his death, in the hope of attaining to the resurrection from the dead (Phil. 3:10-11).


Part two…

2a. I completely agree that there is a tension in Philippians between Paul’s desire to remain alive and work on behalf of the churches and his desire to suffer a Christlike death in the hope, I would add, of attaining a Christlike resurrection from the dead. This is not a latent tension; Paul is profoundly conscious of it.

But I fail to see the problem with applying this to Colossians. The filling up of Christ’s afflictions in his flesh is a process. It will end in his Christlike death, in martyrdom, but in the meantime his suffering as an apostle—for example, his current imprisonment—is for the sake of the churches.

2b. In Acts 2:1-2 we have “the day of Pentecost came (συμπληροῦσθαι)” and a “violent wind… filled (ἐπλήρωσεν) the whole house”—the simple and compound forms of πληρόω in the space of 24 words. It would be difficult to argue for a meaningful parallel between the two terms; it’s just a linguistic coincidence. Cf. John 17:12-13. But the main point I would make is that your observation is quite compatible with the martyrdom interpretation because it is precisely through the experience of personal suffering in his apostolic ministry that Paul makes the word of God fully known.

2c. Again, there is no disagreement here. Paul’s vocation was to proclaim the good news about Israel’s messiah to the nations, from Jerusalem to Spain. He knew that he would suffer greatly in the course of that mission, and he hoped that through that suffering he would ultimately be conformed to Christ’s death. Both aspects are in view in Colossians 1:24. The filling up what was lacking in his flesh corresponds to the expectation of eventual martyrdom. Continued suffering for the sake of the churches corresponds to the missional intention.

3. I agree that Paul is talking about mission in the Colossians passage, but I still think that the peculiar notion of filling up what was lacking of the afflictions of Christ in his flesh is to be explained by reference to his desire for a Christlike martyrdom.

It also seems to me, finally, as I mentioned in the previous comment, that it is hard to expand the scope of his frame of reference to a “quota of spatial missionary suffering that must be fulfilled.” Paul does not say that “we” collectively are filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions, or that he is contributing to the filling up of Christ’s afflictions in the Gentile mission. “I am filling up what is lacking… in my flesh” must surely mean that he expected personally to complete the afflictions of Christ in whatever sense. He may have thought that the other apostles shared his desire to emulate Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 4:7-5:10), but he doesn’t say that here.