The Fullness: Colossians 1:24-29

Servant of the Church – 1:24-29

24 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. 25 I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness— 26 the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. 27 To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

28 He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. 29 To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.

Paul had never met the Colossians, but he saw his present imprisonment and consequent sufferings as being on their behalf. He understood his ongoing trials as a participation in the suffering of Christ. When he uses the term “lacking” in reference to “Christ’s afflictions,” he does not in any way diminish the salvific effect of the cross. As Wiersbe notes, “The word afflictions refers to the ‘pressures’ of life, the persecutions Paul endured. This word is never used in the New Testament for the sacrificial sufferings of Jesus Christ.”[i] Paul’s imprisonment does not work salvation for the Colossians (or Paul, for that matter); instead it serves as the fulfillment of Jesus’ own prophecy: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. …If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”[ii] Paul is continuing the work of Jesus. In fact, Paul clearly understood that it was Jesus himself accomplishing his work through Paul. In this sense, Christ’s afflictions were not finished. The Lord must continue to suffer through the suffering of his people, all for the sake of his church. Suffering, in fact, is fundamental to the vocation of the church. “Just as the Messiah was to be known by the path of suffering he freely chose – and is recognized in his risen body by the mark of the nails – so his people are to be recognized by the sufferings they endure.”[iii] In imitation of Christ, the Church is called to suffer and die at the hands of the world for the sake of the world.

In imitation of Christ, the Church is called to suffer and die at the hands of the world for the sake of the world.
Suffering on account of Jesus is, paradoxically, of tremendous benefit to the Church. Insofar as the suffering is endured with faithfulness, the one who suffers well is a great encouragement to the faith of those who are watching. Throughout the history of the Church, martyrdom has always strengthened the faith of others and caused the body of Christ to flourish wherever it has been resisted with violence and bloodshed. Indeed, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. The power of the Gospel is displayed not when life is easy, but when the storms of suffering, persecution, and hardship rage and roll. “All Christians will suffer for their faith in one way or another: if not outwardly, then inwardly, through the long, slow battle with temptation or sickness, the agonizing anxieties of Christian responsibilities for a family or a church, [or] the constant doubts and uncertainties which accompany the obedience of faith. …All of these, properly understood, are things to rejoice in – not casually, flippantly or superficially, but because they are signs that the present age is passing away, that the people of Jesus, the Messiah, are the children of the new age, and that the birthpangs of this new age are being worked out in them.”[iv]

Though he was once a persecutor of the Church, Paul now understands himself as her servant. God, in his infinite wisdom and mercy, has brought Paul full-circle, redeeming him from the trap of his life as a Pharisee, and commissioning him to proclaim the Gospel to the Gentiles. For Paul, the Gospel is “the word of God in its fullness” because it is the fulfillment – the completion – of the story of Israel. Without Christ, the Scriptures are incomplete. They do not come to their fullness except through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Scriptures come to their fullness through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
For so long the fullness (or fulfillment) of the word of God was a mystery. Peter notes, in his first letter, that the prophets searched intently for the details of this mystery, and that even the angels longed to look into it. But God kept his plan hidden until he revealed himself fully through his son. Some scholars believe that Paul is intentionally using the language of false, proto-gnostic teachers that had infiltrated the Christian community in Colossae. “The Colossian heresy boasted of a ‘fullness’ of knowledge possible only through their mystical experience. But Paul declared that the fullness of the mystery is found only in Christ. By ‘mystery’ he meant something once concealed but then revealed. This contrasted with the Colossian heretics’ notion that a mystery was a secret teaching known only to an exclusive group and unknown to the masses.”[v] God’s mystery, and the subsequent “fullness” of knowledge that came as a result of its revelation, was not a dividing force, separating believers into various levels of righteousness based upon their grasp of it. Rather, God’s mystery accomplishes a union; it is a unifying force that brings together groups previously at odds with one another: Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, slaves and masters, women and men.

This mystery, Paul finally reveals, is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” In this short phrase, addressed to Gentiles, Paul reveals that God’s Messiah is not the Savior of Jews only, but also of Gentiles. “God is revealed in Jesus Christ as the Lord of the whole world, its sovereign and loving Creator and Redeemer.”[vi] It’s important to remember that the “you” in this statement is plural. The image Paul is trying to convey is not of an inward, individualistic Messiah, but rather of the risen Lord redeeming and residing within a community – specifically a community of Gentiles. Because Jesus lives within this community, they have hope that they will follow him into glory. As N.T. Wright says again, “The fact that the Jewish Messiah has made his abode among the nations of the world shows that God intends their ultimate glorification.”[vii] God does not intend to condemn or annihilate any of the peoples of the world, but longs for all to enter into glory through Jesus Christ. Therefore, Christ is able to reside in the midst of any people, imbuing that community with the hope of glory. It’s no wonder that Paul proclaims that this mystery is steeped in glorious riches!

Jesus is the one whom Paul (and his cohort) proclaims. Jesus is the center of Paul’s preaching and teaching. He is not proclaiming a new philosophy or an effective life strategy. Paul preaches a person – the man Jesus Christ who was crucified, but whom God rose from the dead and seated at his right hand. “The gospel is not a system, hierarchy, or set of regulations. It is the person and work of Jesus.”[viii] Anyone who would dare to teach, the Bible tells us, will be judged more harshly than others. Those who claim to carry on Paul’s ministry of preaching the gospel must likewise be sure that they are proclaiming Jesus. Jesus is the message.

Jesus is the center of Paul’s preaching and teaching.
The aim of all preaching and teaching is clearly revealed here in Paul’s description of his own ministry: to present everyone fully mature in Christ. The ministry of preaching is directed toward spiritual formation. The preacher’s job is not to declare what people want to hear, but rather to proclaim what they must hear if they are to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Full maturity does not come through a socially-compromised gospel, but rather through the gospel that turned the world upside down, making virtues of humility, self-giving love, and forgiveness. No false teacher, however kind-hearted and well-intentioned they may be, can present anyone “fully mature” to Jesus when he returns.

It is to this end that Paul exerts all of his energy. In fact, it is not his energy alone which is being spent on the spiritual formation of believers; rather, it is the energy which Christ is so powerfully working in him. “Paul does not go about his work half-heartedly, hoping vaguely that grace will fill in the gaps which he is too lazy to work at himself. Nor, however, does he imagine that it is ‘all up to him,’ so that unless he burns himself out with restless, anxious toil nothing will be achieved. He knows that God’s desire is to bring Christians to maturity, and that God has called him to have a share in that work. He can therefore work hard without the stressful motivation of either pride or fear. He thus becomes an example of that maturity, both human and Christian, that he seeks under God to produce in others.”[ix] This is a powerful word for pastors and ministers. We cannot be cowardly or lazy, presuming upon God’s grace to fix what we ignore. Nor can we be self-reliant, as though any of us possessed within ourselves sufficient energy to present even one disciple fully mature in Christ. Instead, we courageously and prayerfully enter into difficult conversations, saying hard things, leading with both humility and conviction. We are both hard-working and dependent upon God. Like the manna in the wilderness, we do not store up any of the energy Christ gives us for tomorrow. Rather, we strenuously contend with the energy Jesus gives us each day, resting well at night knowing that we have done what has been asked of us, and that we will receive energy sufficient for the day again tomorrow.

The Takeaway

Suffering is inevitable. Most of us, perhaps, will never be imprisoned for our faith or face death on account of Jesus. But we will all suffer – whether with disappointment, disease, or loss. The question that each of us must answer is this: How will I face my suffering? Paul faced his with rejoicing, knowing that what he was enduring (imprisonment and impending execution) played some part in building up the faith of others. This is the opportunity God is looking to exploit in the midst of your suffering; if we can rejoice in the midst of disappointment, disease, or death, then our faith will be a source of strength and encouragement to others. In this way, all of our suffering is “for the sake of his body, the church.” We suffer to strengthen. We endure to encourage.

We suffer to strengthen. We endure to encourage.
The glorious riches that we find in the mystery of Christ in you (plural) is that our lives are not our own. Our bodies and our minds no longer belong to ourselves only. Christ is in our midst, and because he has given us his body and his blood, we also must give ourselves to one another. When we suffer, we do not wallow in self-pity. Instead, we lift up our eyes to the one who died for all, channeling strength from him to those around us. When we teach, we do so not to gain a following, but to build others up into full maturity in Christ. We do not seek to make a name for ourselves, but proclaim Jesus, who himself said that he didn’t come to be served, but to serve. Contained within the mystery that Jesus is the Messiah of the Gentiles, too, is the call to live selflessly in all circumstances.

[i] Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 2, p. 121). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
[ii] John 15:18, 20
[iii] Wright. Colossians and Philemon (p. 92)
[iv] Ibid., p. 94.
[v] Geisler, N. L. (1985). Colossians. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 675). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
[vi] Wright. Colossians and Philemon (p. 96)
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] Melick, R. R. (1991). Philippians, Colossians, Philemon (Vol. 32, p. 242). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
[ix] Wright. Colossians and Philemon (p. 97)

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