Deep Dive: “What is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”?

This Deep Dive goes along with our September 4 discussion guide on Colossians 1:24-29.

If you go and read Colossians 1:24-29, verse 24 might not exactly stop you in your tracks, 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’ 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.