One of my favorite passages in the Bible is Colossians 1:24, which reads: “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.” I must admit, however, that this verse hasn’t always been one of my favorites. For many years, I struggled to understand what the apostle Paul was saying here. I found it hard to fathom that anything could be “lacking” from “Christ’s afflictions” and even harder to see how a mere human being’s suffering could “fill up” whatever it was. But when I searched on the word “lacking” (husterēma in Greek) and found other places in the Bible that use similar wording, I began to see something of what Paul was saying in Colossians 1:24, and it was then that the passage became far more meaningful to me.
The word “lacking” occurs eight times in seven other New Testament passages outside of Colossians 1:24. Four of these occurrences contain the word “lacking” together with a version of the word that is translated “filling up” in our Colossians passage. Two of these four occurrences are less helpful in understanding our verse, because they deal with a topic that is completely different from the one taken up in Colossians—the topic of money. In 2 Corinthians 9:12 and 11:9, it is money, or whatever money can buy, that is lacking, and it is the generosity of God’s people that “fills up” the lack. But in Colossians 1:24, the topic in question is suffering and how it is that Paul’s sufferings can “fill up what is lacking” in Christ’s sufferings. Thankfully, the other two occurrences are much more helpful.
In 1 Corinthians 16:17, Paul gives thanks for the arrival of three men—Stephanus, Fortunatus, and Achaicus—because they, literally, “filled up your lack.” The idea here seems to be that the presence of these three men made up for the absence of the Corinthian Christians in Paul’s life. What was lacking in 1 Corinthians 16:17, therefore, was the physical presence of certain Christians within the church at Corinth. They could not be with Paul physically. And this lack was “filled up” by the coming of these three individuals.
Similarly, and perhaps most helpfully of all, in Philippians 2:30, Paul tells us about the ministry of Epaphroditus, who was sent by the Philippian church to deliver financial gifts to Paul in support of his ministry (see Phil. 4:18). In performing this service on behalf of the church, Epaphroditus apparently became ill and, at least at one point, was close to death (Phil. 2:25–27). At some point after his recovery, he returned to the Philippian church, having been sent back by Paul with the commendation provided in vv. 29–30: “So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.” Given this context, it appears as though the only thing that was lacking from the Philippian church’s gift to Paul was their own physical presence. They could not be with Paul in person to deliver their gift. So they sent Epaphroditus to “complete what was lacking” by delivering their gift on their behalf. And, in doing so, he came close to death.
If we take these ideas and use them to help us understand Colossians 1:24, it would appear that Paul is saying something similar—namely, that the only thing lacking from Christ’s afflictions is that Christ was not physically present with the Colossian Christians as He suffered and died. He could not be there physically, and, as a result, the Colossian church could not witness the sufferings of Christ for themselves in person. Paul’s sufferings, therefore, made up for this “lack” by showing the Colossian Christians the afflictions of Christ in his own suffering.
This means that Paul’s suffering was evangelistic. It presented the sufferings of Christ visibly for all to see. To be sure that didn’t lessen the pain and loss that Paul experienced in and through his afflictions. But it did give purpose to them. His afflictions were not senseless. Instead they constituted an important part of Paul’s ministry. We might even say that affliction was a ministry unto itself for Paul, a privilege entrusted to him by the God of the universe to point people to the only means by which they could be saved—the cross of Christ.
Likewise, when you and I face affliction and difficulty with joy in Christ, our suffering is evangelistic. It points people to Christ and beckons them to believe in Him. It shows them that there is something beyond this earthly existence which is far better than even life itself.
A friend of mine once told me a story that I believe captures the point that Paul is making here in Colossians 1:24 perfectly. It is a story about a family who had a young child who was dying—a boy around 2 years of age, if I remember correctly. I don’t recall the details of the illness or the circumstances surrounding the event. But I remember that my friend went to visit them in the hospital near the end of the boy’s life, and, as he walked in, the child actually took his final breaths and died in his mother’s arms. With tears streaming down her face, the mother asked my friend to lead the family in singing the Doxology. Isn’t that incredible? This mother’s first response, after losing her child, was to give thanks and praise to God!
That is what evangelistic suffering looks like. It fills up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ by bringing His sufferings up close and making them real for all to see. It causes people to sit up and take notice, to ask for the reason for the hope that is in us. It leads us to worship, because the “steadfast love” of the Lord really is “better than life” (Ps. 63:3).
Dr. Guy Richards is Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta. This appeared on the GOSPEL REFORMATION blog.