Suffering for the Sake of Christ's Body

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Rooted in Christ: Paul's Letter to the Colossians

Date: January 20, 2019

Speaker: Jeff Breeding

Series: Rooted in Christ: Paul's Letter to the Colossians

Scripture: Colossians 1:24–1:27

Suffering for the Sake of Christ's Body

One of the many blessings of reading the Bible is that it explodes your categories for what you think the Christian life should be like. We all come to the Christian life with certain assumptions about how things will be. Some of those assumptions are right, but many of them have no basis in Scripture. “God helps those who help themselves” – not in the Bible. “The devil made me do it” – again, not in the Bible. This is why it’s so important to be regularly hearing God’s Word – because we all have certain categories, certain assumptions about the Christian life that honestly need to get blown up.

Today’s passage is one of those texts that blows things up. The first line of v24 challenges so much of what people assume about Christianity. Look again at what Paul says, “Now, I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake. On the surface, that doesn’t sound very good. I thought Christianity was about good news, so why would Paul rejoice in suffering? I thought Paul wanted to encourage these Christians, so why does he put joy and hardship together as though it is something to be expected? Do you see what I mean? This passage explodes what is often assumed about the Christian life. Far from being his best life now, Paul’s joy, at least in part, comes from the hardships he experiences as a Christian.

Now, the question, of course, is why? Why does Paul rejoice in suffering? We should be clear, first of all, that it’s not because Paul enjoys the physical experience of suffering. Being shipwrecked or nearly stoned to death are not pleasant things, so Paul’s joy is not in the physical experience. What’s more, Paul’s joy is not because suffering is, in and of itself, a good thing. Paul’s sufferings were the result of living in a fallen world, so his joy is not saying that those sufferings were somehow good and right.

Rather, Paul rejoices in his sufferings because he knows there is a greater purpose at work. Paul’s sufferings are doing something, in order words, and you can see a hint of this there in v24. “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake,” Paul says. Paul believed that what he endured for the gospel was somehow being used by God for the good of the church. Paul’s sufferings were somehow advancing God’s work of bringing glory to Christ. And that’s why Paul rejoices – because he knows there is a greater, we could even say, a divine purpose at work.

This is why Paul spends this next section of the letter speaking about himself and his ministry of the gospel. He wants the Colossians to understand that suffering for Christ should not cause us to question the gospel, but should instead encourage us to hold fast to the gospel. That’s really the pastoral takeaway of this entire section, all the way down to ch2 v5. Paul’s not patting himself on the back. He’s not putting himself on center stage. No, Paul’s aim is to call us to imitate his example, even as he imitates the Lord Jesus Christ.

More specifically, you can think of this passage as presenting two ways that the gospel calls believers to live. #1 – the gospel calls us to share in the sufferings of Christ, and #2 – the gospel calls us to take hope in our union with Christ. Let’s look at each of those more closely, beginning with how the gospel calls us to share in the sufferings of Christ.

 

The gospel calls us to share in the sufferings of Christ

We’ve already noted the first surprising element in v24 – how Paul rejoices in his sufferings. But if you were listening closely when we read, then you’ll know that is not the only surprising thing about this opening verse. Rejoicing in suffering is one thing, but Paul’s explanation of what that means is downright shocking. Notice Paul’s next statement in v24 – “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.” That is an incredible statement to read anywhere, and we read in the Bible no less. You can imagine someone reading Colossians for the first time, and doing a double take at v24. What a second, Paul? What did you say? You’re filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions? What could this possibly mean?

It helps to begin with what Paul does not mean. From the start, we know that Paul does not mean there is something lacking in Christ’s atoning death on the cross. Paul is not saying that Jesus’ blood was somehow deficient, and therefore, we have to add something in order to make it effective. We know, without a doubt, Paul is not saying such a blasphemous thing. How do we know that? Because of what he just said in the first 23 verses of the letter! Remember, this entire opening chapter has been about one grand truth – that Christ is supreme and sufficient to save! There’s nothing to add to the gospel. We’ve seen that truth time and again just here in chapter 1.

Believers have been qualified to share in the inheritance of the saints in light, v12. It’s a past tense, completed work that cannot be undone. What’s more, believers have been transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, v13. Again, past tense, completed, once and for all. Even still, Paul stresses again that believers have been reconciled to God through the body and blood of Christ, v21. Same thing – past tense, completed, finished. There is nothing lacking in the work of Christ. There is nothing that needs to be added to Christ’s blood.

Indeed, how could there be anything added to the work of Christ when Paul has made clear that Jesus Christ has no rivals. He is the firstborn of all creation, v15, meaning he rules over the universe. He is the firstborn from among the dead, v18, meaning his resurrection guarantees the resurrection of his people. And he is the one in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, v19. How can the fullness of God be deficient in any way? He can’t! By definition, Jesus Christ is sufficient to save because he is supreme in every way.

When Paul says he is filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions, we can know with certainty that he is not saying anything about the atoning work of Jesus Christ.

Even so, the question remains, doesn’t it? What does Paul mean? There is a scene from the Book of Revelation, of all places, that helps explain Paul’s point. You may remember in Revelation 6 that those who have been martyred for their faith come before God, and they ask how long it will be until God brings his final judgment on the earth. Do you remember that scene? The martyrs long for justice, they long for Christ’s second coming in power, and they ask God, “How long, O Lord?”

And God’s response is striking. God tells the martyrs to rest a little longer until the full number of their brothers and sisters should be completed. What we should take from this is that God, in his wisdom, has determined a particular, set amount of suffering that is to be experienced before the end. The martyrs are a specific example of a general truth. God has determined a particular, set amount of suffering that is to be experienced before the end will come. That’s why the martyrs in Revelation 6 are told to rest a little longer – there is more hardship, more affliction, more distress that must be endured in the cause of the gospel.

But here’s the key, for understanding Paul’s point in v24. Who will bear that suffering? Who will endure those afflictions? Not the Lord Jesus Christ, who has ascended again into heaven, but his body, the church. Think about Paul’s own life and ministry. It was costly to take the gospel to Ephesus, to Philippi, to Lystra and Derbe and Rome and Thessalonica. In order for the gospel to reach those places, someone had to suffer. Someone had to be shipwrecked and stoned and beaten and thrown into prison. Who endured all those afflictions? Paul did. As a member of Christ’s body, he shared in Christ’s sufferings. And in doing so, Paul’s suffering supplied what was lacking in order for the gospel to spread.

We could put it in this perhaps overly simplistic statement. There is a cost for the gospel to spread, and that cost must be paid by Christ’s body, the church. As we share in Christ’s sufferings, we supply what God has determined to be necessary for the spread of the gospel.

Now, at this point, someone might be thinking, “Yes, Jeff, I see what you’re saying, but Paul was unique. I mean, v25 even speaks to this – Paul was an apostle with a unique stewardship from God. We’re not apostles, so shouldn’t we say that this kind of suffering for the gospel was unique to Paul?” That’s a good question, and on some level, you’re right. Paul was unique. His apostolic ministry does not carry over to us. It was Paul’s calling to bear the cost of taking the gospel to Ephesus and Philippi and Rome, and Paul had to physically bear that cost in his own body. So, yes, on some level, Paul was certainly unique.

But on the other hand, I’d like you to consider a few passages from some of Paul’s other letters. These are all from Paul’s own hand, and I’d like you to listen for how Paul expects his life to be viewed by other believers. 1 Corinthians 11.1 – “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Philippians 3.8 & 10 – “I have suffered the loss of all things…that I may know [Christ] and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings.” Then just a few verses later, Philippians 3.17 – “Brothers, join in imitating me.” And then Philippians 1.29-30 – “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.” Is Paul unique? Certainly. But is Paul’s life also teaching us something about the Christian life? Absolutely. To belong to the body of Christ is to share in the sufferings of Christ. This is part of the gospel’s call. When we embrace Christ by faith, we are, in a real sense, joining the Lord Jesus on the road of suffering. Again, our suffering is not redemptive, and it doesn’t atone for anyone’s sins, least of all our own. And yet, our suffering for Christ is essential for the gospel mission of the church. Apart from Christ’s body bearing the cost, the gospel would not spread. Do you see it? As we endure affliction for Christ, we participate in God’s purpose of seeing the gospel spread to the ends of the earth.

And that’s where I’d like to pause for a moment with you. We’ve done some hard theological thinking for the past several minutes, but here I want to consider what this means for you and I in the present. Every Christian in this room has been entrusted with the gospel, and that means every Christian in this room has been tasked with seeing the gospel spread. This is how Christ receives the glory that he deserves – as his people, in every walk of life, proclaim the gospel for the salvation of the lost. If you profess Christ today, this is your calling. Whatever your position or season in life, you are entrusted with the gospel.

And therefore, every Christian in this room should be prepared to endure suffering for the cause of Christ. Every Christian should be ready to experience affliction in the work of the gospel. As the body of Christ, this is how we share in Christ’s suffering – we faithfully endure hardship for the sake of his name. Are you prepared to suffer, brothers and sisters? Even today, is your heart convinced that Christ is worth the cost? Listen, one of the best ways to be prepared is to recognize, ahead of time, that suffering will come. The apostle Peter in chapter 4 of his first letter says, “Don’t be surprised when the hardship comes.” Get ready, in other words. Expect this to come because it’s part of the gospel mission. Are you prepared?

Compared to our brothers and sisters around the world, the church in our country does not yet know how painful such suffering can be. I read recently about a faithful gospel church in China whose leaders were suddenly arrested on a Sunday morning and their building was then raided and boarded shut. Do you know what that congregation did the next Sunday? They met outdoors, only to have the police show up and arrest dozens more. Why would that Chinese church meet outside for worship, considering the threat of being arrested? Because they understood what Paul says here in Colossians 1 – that to carry out the cause of the gospel, Christ’s people must share in his sufferings.

The church in our country does not yet know that level of suffering. But, the day may come when we will, and this passage is calling us to be prepared, to recognize ahead of time the cost of gospel mission. What’s more, while we may not face imprisonment for the gospel, there is also the kind of suffering that results in loss of job, loss of reputation, being ostracized, losing relationships. Are those things as hard as prison? No, but it’s not our calling to determine the level of hardship we face. It is our calling to face it faithfully, whatever that level might be. Are we ready, brothers and sisters? The Glorious Christ whom we studied in vv15-20 – is he your confidence and your hope? The Glorious Gospel that we celebrated in vv21-23 – is that good news your heartbeat and commitment in life? As Paul’s ministry reminds us, the gospel calls us to share in the sufferings of Christ, and so as we consider this passage, the question that confronts is are we prepared to do so?

These are weighty matters, aren’t they? If you’re feeling a heaviness as we consider these things, that’s good. These are serious considerations. And yet, as we transition to v25 and following, we find that there is a reason to be hopeful. This is the kindness of God. In the midst of these weighty matters, the Lord also gives us a reason to be hopeful. The gospel calls us to share in Christ’s suffering, but that’s not the end. As Paul’s ministry reminds us, the gospel also calls us to take hope in our union with Christ.

 

The gospel also calls us to take hope in our union with Christ

In v25, Paul speaks of his calling to serve as a minister of the church. Notice again what he says – “of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known.” Paul’s life is defined by his divine calling to take the gospel to the Gentiles. And that calling means, fundamentally, that Paul is a servant of the church. That’s what the word minister means here – it means Paul serves for the sake of Christ’s body. Notice especially that word stewardship. Paul’s point is that the church doesn’t belong to him. The church belongs to God. The church is God’s creation, and as a minister of the gospel, Paul serves the church on God’s behalf. The church doesn’t belong to Paul, just as any church today does not belong to any pastor or minister. The church belongs to God. The call to gospel ministry, then, is a call to steward something that doesn’t belong to you. It’s a call to sacrificial service for the sake of the church.

You’ll notice also that at the heart of Paul’s ministry to the church is the word of God. Did you catch that at the end of v25? What’s the purpose of Paul’s stewardship? End of v25 – to make the word of God fully known. Paul’s ministry was essentially word-driven. He was called to serve the church, and he did so by proclaiming the whole counsel of God. In fact, Paul would say there is no ministry apart from that Word. If we take the word of God out of the center of gospel ministry, then we fail in our stewardship. We may be doing lots of other things, but we’re not following the apostle’s example of serving the church. Paul’s stewardship is to make the word of God fully known.

Before we go on, I hope we see here the reminder of why we do what we do on Sunday mornings. We read the Bible, we sing songs rooted in the Bible, we pray from the Bible, and we preach the Bible. Why do we do those things? Are we trying to fill a niche in the church market? No. Are we trying to tap into some trend in church ministry? No. We do those things because this is how the apostle’s carried out their ministry – on the basis of God’s Word. This is what God says defines our stewardship – to make the Word of God fully known.  

Now, as we come to v26, Paul tells us what it means to make the word of God fully known, and he do so by using this important term mystery. Notice again what Paul writes, v26 – “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.” Now, it’s critical we understand that when Paul says mystery, he’s not talking about something that we have to figure out. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Mystery in the NT is a divine truth that we cannot know unless God first reveals it to us. We even hear that element in v26, don’t we? This mystery was hidden for ages but it has now been revealed to the saints. This is Paul’s work of making the word of God fully known. He has been tasked with proclaiming the mystery that God has now revealed.

Of course, that raises the question, “What exactly is this mystery?” In v27, Paul gives us the answer, and it’s here, finally, that we get the reason for hope. Notice what Paul writes, v27 – “To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” What is this mystery Paul is called to proclaim? It is nothing less than God’s plan to redeem people from every tribe, tongue, and nation through the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s the mystery – that both Jews and Gentiles are saved by being united to Christ by faith. That plan was determined by God before the foundation of the world, as Father, Son, and Spirit covenanted themselves together to redeem a fallen humanity. That plan was anticipated under the Old Covenant, as Christ was foreshadowed in types and predicted through the prophets. But only now, through the new covenant gospel, has the full revelation of that plan been made known to the church. That’s the mystery now revealed to the saints – it’s the revelation of Jesus Christ, the long-promised Messiah. This is how Paul makes the word of God fully known – by proclaiming Jesus Christ.

But there’s a little more to this mystery that we need to understand. You may have noticed that Paul uses a unique phrase here in v27. He says the mystery is “Christ in you.” If you’re familiar with Paul’s letters, you know he typically speaks of believers being in Christ, but here in v27, it’s Christ in you. Why the shift? Think of the context of this letter. The Colossians are under siege by false teachers who are urging them to add something to the gospel. “You need something else,” the false teachers claim. “You’re lacking, you’re insufficient, you don’t have everything you need spiritually.” What does Paul do? He spends verse after verse proclaiming the unrivaled, unsurpassed, all-sufficient glory of Christ, and then Paul says, “That Christ is in you.” How could you lack anything spiritually if the Image of the Invisible God dwells in you? How could you need something more if the One who holds all things together has united himself to you in the gospel?

This is the great wonder of the gospel. It’s not merely that Jesus fulfills OT prophecies or fits OT types. It’s that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, unites himself to us and represents us before the Father. And because of that union with Christ, believers have the hope of glory, Paul says. Believes have hope of being fully conformed to the image of Christ and, then forever dwelling in the presence of God. That’s the glory in view here. Think about what that means, just in this passage. No matter how difficult it might be to share in the sufferings of Christ, believers have this confidence, this assurance that the end will be glory. We can gladly give our lives away for the sake of the gospel because we know, with certainty, that our future is glory with Christ. The gospel calls us to share in Christ’s suffering, and at the same time, the gospel calls us to take hope because we are united with the Living Christ.

In fact, these two realities that we’ve considered today – they must be kept together. I asked us earlier – Are you prepared to suffer for the sake of Christ? That’s the question we have to answer. And yet, there’s still this thought, isn’t there? How do we do that? How can I get ready to share in Christ’s sufferings? Only by embracing the hope we have through our union with Christ. The two must be kept together. When I know that Christ cannot be taken away from me – or even better, when I know that I cannot be taken away from Christ – then and only then will I be ready to lay down all that I have for the sake of his name. We share in Christ’s sufferings by taking hope from our union with Christ. That was Paul’s testimony, and I pray it would ours as well.

Now, I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake,” Paul says in v24. What an incredible statement, that explodes so much of what we assume about Christianity. Paul rejoices in his sufferings. And here at the end, we finally have the answer why. Paul rejoices because suffering with Christ is the road to glory with Christ. Please don’t miss that connection as we close. I imagine this is what sustained Paul through the shipwrecks and the beatings and the long nights in prison. With each moment of suffering, Paul could say, “This is how the Lord Jesus entered his glory as well – through suffering.” And in that thought – in that surprising connection of suffering and glory, Paul rejoices. Not because suffering is good, in and of itself, and not because suffering is pleasant. No, Paul rejoices because suffering with Christ is the pathway to glory with Christ. Just as Christ suffered and then received his glory, so also Christ’s church is called to suffer with the promise, the assurance of the glory that is to come.

May God make us a faithful church, brothers and sisters, a church that witnesses to Christ. And may our joy be that the sufferings of this life are preparing for us an eternal weight of glory with Christ that is beyond compare. Amen.