September 4 – Colossians 1:24-29
Main focus: The work of Jesus in and through us.
Last week we looked at Paul’s ode to Jesus, the preeminent King through whom and for whom all things were made. We could call that section the how of the gospel (God’s power) and the why of the gospel (God’s glory). This week we’ll get into more of the what of the gospel, what Jesus does in and through us.
In evangelical churches like ours, we tend to think that the primary thing Jesus does for us is make us righteous before God—this is justification. And Jesus certainly does that. But, in fact, there’s a higher, more important thing that Jesus does for us that includes justification, along with a number of other things: he unites us to himself. This is what Paul’s talking about in 1:27-28 when he says that the believers at Colossae are in Christ and Christ is in them. Theologians call this “union with Christ,” which is a massive concept that includes the whole gamut of salvation, from election (Eph 1:5) to regeneration (Eph 2:5) to justification (Rom 8:1) to sanctification (2 Cor 3:18) and all the way to resurrection and glorification (Rom 8:30).
Here’s how scholar Grant Macaskill describes Paul’s concept of union with Christ:
Paul’s personal hope is expressed in his statement “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). This does not mean that his particular distinctive identity has been erased from existence; he still greets the church to which he writes as “Paul” and still writes in a way that is shaped by his past. But something has changed, and it is not just what his life is directed toward, or how he seeks to live it, but it is his most basic sense of who he is, of the person that inhabits the space occupied by his body, of who gets credit for what his limbs or lips do, of who he is becoming. He is not becoming a better version of Paul; he is becoming Paul-in-Christ. He is metamorphosing into the likeness of Jesus. As difficult as it is for us to comprehend the meaning of such language, a proper understanding of Paul’s concept of the Christian moral life demands it.Grant Macaskill, Living in Union with Christ, ix
That’s a far more complete understanding of what it means to be “in Christ” than simply being justified. The true hope of the gospel, the work that Jesus does in us, is for us to become one with him. “He is our hope.”Macaskill, vii Don’t miss the significance of this (we’ll touch on it in discussion): most of us live our Christian lives trying to become a better version of me, but Jesus intends to create me-in-Christ.
Also in discussion we’ll briefly hit the “mystery” language that Paul talks about here. In his day, it was a gargantuan thing for him to say the Gentiles could receive forgiveness from the God of Israel through Jesus. Today, we tend to gloss over this monumental development in the storyline of the Bible. But, many of us at Vintage have 0% Jewish ancestry, and if that’s true for you, when you read 1:26-27 you’re reading your own adoption record. And that is good news.
That’s relevant for us because, ultimately, we shouldn’t see Christian faithfulness as anything other than what Paul is describing here. Granted, it might not look like Paul’s specific ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles, sailing around the Mediterranean and starting churches in almost every city he visited. But, with the Great Commission in mind, we know that Jesus has charged each of us to go and make disciples (Matt 28:16-20). You and I have been given a stewardship of this good news in which we hope, and bringing the hope of the gospel to others is the work Jesus intends to do through us on this earth. We’ll finish our discussion on that point, asking ourselves in what ways Jesus intends to do this same sort of ministry in our individual lives.
• Could someone read Colossians 1:24-29 for us?
• What stood out to you from the passage?
• What does Paul say is the point of his ministry?
• Paul talks about the “mystery” of God opening a way of salvation to the Gentiles—how is that relevant to us today?
• Paul describes the Christian life as being “in Christ” and having “Christ in you.” What’s significant about that language to you?
• How does this passage help you understand Jesus’ desire for you?
• In what ways do you think Jesus wants to do this same sort of ministry specifically through you?
Maybe when you read verse 24 it didn’t give you any pause, but there’s some serious theology to sort through here:
“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)
The subject is quite plain: Paul is talking about the sufferings he experiences as an apostle (check out 2 Cor 11:16-12:10 for more on that). But the way he characterizes these sufferings is challenging to make sense of; he says that his many pains in ministry are “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” Here’s why that’s a big deal: the work of redemption was accomplished through Jesus’ suffering in the place of sin. When Jesus was on the cross he shouted “It is finished!” So, if Paul is saying there is something lacking in Jesus’ suffering, this changes our understanding of how salvation is accomplished.
However, two things are important here. First, in the rest of his letters Paul never uses the word “affliction” (Greek thlipsis) to describe Jesus’ work of redemption. Typically he uses it to talk about his own sufferings like he does here; ex. Philippians 1:17, “…to afflict (thlipsis) me in my imprisonment,” Ephesians 3:13, “what I am suffering (thlipsis) for you.” Because of this, secondly, we can determine that Paul isn’t talking about bearing hardships for the church as a way to help finish Jesus’ work of redemption but as a way to fellowship with Jesus’ in his sufferings. That’s to say, Paul is identifying with his suffering Savior and seeing the close relationship that Jesus has with his church—so close that he calls it Jesus’ own body. So, even though the work of redemption is complete (cf. Rom 8:1), there is a sense to which Jesus is still suffering in and through the church, not for redemption but out of union with his people—note Paul’s emphasis in Col 1:27 that believers are “in Christ.” And this means what Paul says here is applicable for us too; as we participate in the regular, everyday ministry of the church, we can expect that we will suffer in some capacity like Jesus did (John 15:20). But this suffering brings surprising benefits as it aids our fellowship with our savior and his church.