Summary: Learning from Paul’s personal testimony to the Colossian CHurch
When I was at university—I sweated and groaned and struggled to get through my studies. One day a mate left an major project we were working on in the train. He rang every station from Hornsby to Campbelltown hoping it was handed in. Alas, our major assignment was gone forever! After the lecturer finished laughing, he gave us a compassionate pass. Study was a constant struggle. Long nights and complex assignments. We struggled for the hope of glory—the hope of receiving a degree in engineering.
In Col 1:24–2:5, the Apostle Paul speaks about his own struggles for the Colossian Church. This complements the opening of the letter which reminds us of who we are in Christ and how we became this way. The Colossians were facing life’s challenges, not unlike our own. And Paul’s response is to lay the gospel before them in categories which exalt the risen Christ and demonstrate our union with him. Carefully woven into this explanation are subtle points of contact with the false teachers. Paul refers to the supremacy of Christ over ‘all things’, the ‘fullness’ of God dwellING in Christ. Since we lack nothing in Christ, since we have ‘fullness’ in Christ, then is it not an utter stupidity to fill ourselves with someone other than Christ?
At first consideration, our passage sits rather uncomfortably in the letter. The marvellous opening which climaxes in verse 23 of chapter 1, yields to a rehearsal by Paul of his own sufferings for the gospel. Do we really want to hear about Paul? Are we not more interested in Christ and the implications of the gospel for daily living? You know that the Apostle Paul is not liked in some circles: he appears to many to belittle women, affirm slavery, and express hostility toward the Jewish people. John Shelby Spong says that ‘Paul was a limited man captured by the worldview and circumstances of a vastly different time […he] may have been a gay male’. Fighting words! Perhaps the less we know about Paul the better!
Yet if we are to account for the letter as it stands, we must accept the declaration by Paul that he is ‘an apostle of Christ’ and that he writes the word of God. We know from the Book of Acts that Paul met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, a significant experience upon which Paul occasionally reflects in his writings to the churches. In the setting of Colossians, Paul refers to his own labours as a servant of this risen Christ. We therefore miss an important section if we overlook Paul’s labour for the church.
So why does Paul detail his own sufferings for the church? And how does this speak into the Colossian situation? What does this mean for us? These questions occupy the remainder of our time.
Now I’d like you to notice in this section—Col 1:24 to 2:5—that there is a change of pronoun. So far its always been ‘we’, that is, Paul and Timothy: ‘we always thank God when we pray for you’ (verse 3), ‘we have not stopped praying for you’ (verse 9), ‘we pray this in order that you may life a life worthy of the Lord’ (verse 10). Now it’s a little more personal. Now Paul is speaking about himself. ‘I rejoice in what was suffered for you’ (verse 24), ‘I am struggling for you’, ‘I tell you this’. This is Paul’s personal testimony and he particularly emphasises his own suffering and struggles.
At the centre of this section (and if you know what a chiastic structure is—its one of them) are verses 29 and 2:1, ‘To this end I labour, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me. I want you to know how much I am struggling for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally’. There are two reasons why Paul labours and struggles for the saints in Colossae.
The first reason why Paul suffers for the Colossian Church is seen in verse 24, which is perhaps the hardest verse in the letter. So it’s a little tricky to work out what the reason is. The NIV says, ‘Now I rejoice in what was suffered 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’.
The first clause is, ‘Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you’. It’s not easy to grasp what Paul means. The NASB is a much clearer, ‘Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake’ or ‘I rejoice in what I am suffering for you’. Paul is writing from prison, and in some manner his sufferings are helping the Colossians—and he’s happy about that. The next clause suggests how this might be, ‘I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regards to Christ’s afflictions’. This clause is also puzzling. How do you ‘fill up in your flesh’ and ‘is Christ still being afflicted although he is in heaven’?