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.