Question:According to Colossians 1:24, what is lacking in Christ's afflictions?
“Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” (Colossians 1:24, NIV)
Answer: Greetings friend. Colossians 1:24 is one of the more difficult of Paul’s writings to interpret. It seems that, whichever way we attack it, we threaten the completed work of Jesus Christ… and we do not want to do that! So — and with such tensions in place — it should be no surprise that I cannot promise you anything like a crisp answer to this question. But I can share some significant commentary before closing with my own observations.
E.D. Martin gives us nine interpretations of this verse — and this alone shows the degree of difficulty in interpreting it. But don’t despair. If even one of these interpretations is both plausible and targeted to your specific issue(s) that should relieve the tension in this verse. Remember, logic does not require a perfect solution to dispel contradiction. It only requires a single plausible solution … and we have nine!
Verse 24 is difficult. One clause raises the most questions: in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. The following interpretations represent various attempts to understand what it may mean. Evaluative comments appear in parentheses.
1. Something is lacking in Christ’s sacrificial suffering. (the existence of a “treasury of merit,” built up in part by the sufferings of saints for the benefit of others, was a traditional teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, dating back to the thirteenth century. This concept implies that christ’s work of redemption is not complete, or at least that it can be supplemented. Neither the OT nor the NT supports this view. The clear testimony of the Scriptures is that redemption through Christ’s suffering and death is complete. Nothing can or should be added.)
2. Christ’s afflictions can possibly mean afflictions for the sake of Christ. (In Acts 9:16, note the Lord’s instructions to Ananias regarding Saul: “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” But completing and lacking make little sense in connection with this meaning, and neither does for the sake of … the church.)
3. Christ’s afflictions may mean sufferings which resemble those of Christ. (But this has the same weaknesses as option 2.)
4. The sufferings in view may be those resulting from the believers’ mystical union with Christ. (Believers do identify with Christ in his suffering and death, but the benefit is for the believer rather than it being for the sake of others or the church. Lacking is not explained, unless perhaps in the sense of what is yet to be shared, with awareness that it is never completed before death.)
5. A concept of “the woes of the Messiah” developed out of Jewish expectations of the end-times. This focused on the travail out of which the messianic age was to be born, with limits set by God, but not yet reached. Paul’s sufferings go toward making up the total and thus reduce suffering for the church. (The NT view is that the messianic age has already begun and tribulations are to be expected, especially near the end. The idea of needing a full number of martyrs could be implied in Rev. 6:11. However, Colossians does not give evidence of an apocalyptic perspective.)
6. The corporate personality concept may help to explain Paul’s thought. Israel was to be God’s suffering servant but failed in that task. Jesus was indeed God’s suffering servant. By identifying with Christ, the people of God now share in that suffering-servant ministry. (The vicarious element of the suffering, for the sake of, fits with this interpretation, but what is lacking is not explained.)
7. A distinction may be made between suffering that saves and suffering that edifies. The work of redemption has been fully accomplished in Christ, but Christ’s ongoing suffering to bring believers to perfection is shared by Christ’s servants. As Paul applies the principle to himself, he suffers, not for his own benefit, but for the edifying benefit of others. (This distinction is not at all implied in this text, but it does respect the fact that the word used in 1:24 for Christ’s afflictions is never used in the NT in explicit reference to Christ’s redemptive suffering.)
8. Nothing is lacking in Christ’s sufferings, but a deficiency in Paul’s suffering is in view. Philippians 3:10 is a supporting text. (Paul does accept suffering and recognize value in it, but this explanation fails to include all the factors for an acceptable explanation.)
9. Sixteenth-century Anabaptists cited and alluded to Colossians 1:24 as they sought to understand their own sufferings. Conrad Grebel noted in a letter that many were putting their trust in leaders regarded as the learned, while few believed the Word of God. He went on to say, “And if you should have to suffer for it, you know that it cannot be otherwise. Christ must suffer still more in his members, but he will strengthen them and keep them steadfast to the end” (293).
A faithful interpretation must respect previous references in Colossians to the completed work of Christ (1:12–14, 20–21), and many other similar teachings of the NT. It must allow for something that is not yet complete, associated with Christ’s afflictions. It must also understand the sufferings as being on behalf of the church, the church at Colossae in particular….
(Martin, E. D. (1993). Colossians, Philemon (pp. 89–91). Scottdale, PA: Herald Press.)
J. D. G. Dunn unpacks some further issues, but he does by seeing this verse as part of Paul’s eschatological schema.
Paul’s theology of suffering, however, was still richer. For Paul suffering meant suffering with Christ, sharing Christ’s sufferings (Rom. 8:17; 2 Cor. 1:5; 4:10–11; Phil. 3:10–11). It is clearly this theme which is taken further here in the surprising sentence, “I fill up what is lacking of the afflictions of the Christ in my flesh.” The words have caused bewilderment to generations of translators and commentators.7 But in fact they are simply the extension of Paul’s complete eschatological schema. It contains several elements: (1) Christ’s sufferings and death as the eschatological tribulation expected as the antecedent to the new age—Paul’s adaptation, reflected particularly in Rom. 8:18–23, of an older Jewish theme; (2) participation in the death of Christ as itself the means of transition from old age to new (Rom. 6:3–11; 8:18–23 prefaced by 8:17; 2 Cor. 4:10–12 leading into 4:16–5:5; Phil. 3:10–11; Heb. 2:9–10 offers a different model with equivalent effect); and, consequently, (3) Christian existence as a lifelong process in which dying with Christ leads to a share of his final resurrection (Rom. 6:5; Gal. 2:19; 6:14—still nailed to the cross with Christ [note the perfect tenses]; Rom. 6:5; 8:11, 23; Phil. 3:11—resurrection still future; see further my Jesus 326–38).
Col. 1:24 is clearly building on this theme.
(Dunn, J. D. G. (1996). The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: a commentary on the Greek text (pp. 114–115). Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: William B. Eerdmans Publishing; Paternoster Press.)
The above samplings are just two among a multitude of commentators who are hovering around the same ideas. But when I combine their observations with the fact that you too have questions about this verse, this made me stop… it made me challenge my own exegesis. You see, I’ve always read right by this verse without questioning it. So why is this? Shouldn’t a challenge to the adequacy of Christ’s sufferings raise an eyebrow in the thoughtful Christian? Perhaps it should… or perhaps I’m just cashing-in on my philosophy of language.
In my opinion, all readers of Scripture should give God the benefit of the doubt when they read. The way to do this is by understanding the Bible as synergistic in that every part of it works together to build and to reinforce the whole… and a robust understanding of biblical inerrancy will help a believer here. Having faith in God’s communicative competency allows the reader to read right by the many phrases that could be seen in tension under decontextualized scrutiny… and I have always done that to Colossians 1:24. Here’s why.
Paul teaches that Christians should expect suffering, and this notion is diffused throughout his work. This makes it an overarching topic. As such, a phrase like “….I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions…” does not say that Christ lacks anything. It says that we will experience sufferings that are categorically Christ’s, not ours… even though it is we who experienced them. With this in view, we are not complementing or completing the sufferings that Jesus must personally experience. We are suffering those trials which we must personally experience as true disciples… but we are doing this under the aegis of Jesus Christ. Therefore, they are Christ’s afflictions as to ownership, but they are our afflictions as to function. Consider the following verses:
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”” (Matthew 11:29–30, NIV)
“For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.”
(2 Corinthians 1:5, NIV)
I see Jesus’ “yoke” as including the reasonable sufferings that we find in the Pauline theme — and many commentators include this in their reasoning. Indeed, those who write commentaries have the burden of addressing every reasonable idea… but not I. I can just read and enjoy the Scripture as the Holy Spirit fills my sails at that moment… and I do — and I don’t look for any untoward trouble. Now, perhaps I should do this more often — so thank you for making me stop and think. But having done that, I still like my solution the best.
God bless you.