By Ryan Shaw
Paul’s willingly suffered on behalf of the Colossian church whom he’d never met. Suffering is greatly misunderstood in the body of Christ. The Lord conveys great spiritual power through the means of the suffering of His people for the gospel’s sake (not foolishness’ sake).
The statement “and fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ…” is a bit of a strangely worded sentence. It is a reference to a spiritual process taking place as believers suffer for Jesus’ sake leading up to Jesus’ Second Coming.
The New Testament teaches suffering itself as a means for producing fruit among unreached ethnic groups, cities and nations. Much emphasis has been placed on suffering as a result of communicating the gospel, yet it is much more.
Paul’s sufferings could obviously never be a substitute for sin as Christ’s suffering alone is thoroughly sufficient for this. Jesus’ suffering on our behalf is perfectly complete as the only possible satisfaction before a Holy God.
Instead, the sufferings of Paul and others suffering persecution for the sake of the gospel, are seen as filling up a portion of Christ’s ongoing afflictions. This is because God’s people are identifying themselves with Christ. The afflictions which His people endure, He also endures. In time this “filling” will be complete.
As Jesus is present with His people in the midst of suffering, comforting and enabling them by His power and grace, He also endures with them in their afflictions. In this way every believer who suffers in the present (for the sake of the gospel) participates in the ongoing process of “filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ.”
The afflictions (suffering) of Jesus through His people build as His return nears. The exalted Christ is presently in heaven. During this timeframe before His return He suffers in and through His people as they press onward towards the fulfillment of the great commission.
As we voluntarily suffer for the gospel’s sake we, like Paul, are ‘filling up the afflictions’ of Christ as we look together to His soon and anticipated return.
There are many who discount this important centerpiece of the gospel. It is common among believers to think since Jesus shed His blood and died for us we have been spared from suffering.
It is true that Jesus’ sacrifice in our place enables restored fellowship with the Father while cleansing and sanctifying us. Yet, Jesus did not offer His life and shed his blood to protect us from sacrifice but to make the sacrifice of our own lives possible and even desirable.
Another way to put it is that Jesus died not to free us from suffering but to free us for suffering. Many scriptures throughout the Bible encapsulate this core concept of true Christianity.
Jesus broke the power of waywardness and death through voluntarily suffering and He calls us to do the same as His followers. He has shown us the only pattern to true victory and breakthrough among the nations – “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies…. (John 12:24)”
Voluntary willingness to suffer is the message of the gospel, yet also our method in reaching people with Christ. We receive His love through His sufferings on the cross on our behalf. We then embrace His sufferings within our lives as a means of producing harvest among unreached ethnic groups.
If we are to see the unreached come to wholehearted and relevant faith by the millions around the world, suffering will not only be the inevitable result of such work, but the actual means to see it accomplished. This was Jesus’ way to victory and centuries of mission history prove that it will be ours as well.
This does not necessarily mean we will die for our faith, though this is inevitably increasing (His afflictions being filled up) as we near His return.
As we willingly die to our comfort, convenience, cultural ease, family relationships, reputations, identities and tendencies toward pleasing people, we participate in volunteer suffering as we seek to lead people to the experiential knowledge of God through Christ.