Lots of Christians steer clear of this passage in Paul's letter to the Colossians. They are afraid that any discussion of what may be "lacking in Christ's sufferings" will water down our strong doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus for the sins of his people. But apparently Paul didn't think so. Otherwise he would have phrased this differently.
The place of suffering in the Apostolic ministry in the first century church needs more study. The apostles talk about suffering a lot, more than we are comfortable with. The Apostle Paul seems to have believed that his suffering in particular was pivotal in the progress and maturation of the developing church. Here in Colossians 1 he "rejoices in his sufferings. . . for the sake of his body, that is the church" (24). But he often rejoices in his afflictions and calls attention to his suffering as a model for ministry in the church.
For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake (Phil. 1.29).Indeed, we should say that Paul's suffering service was paradigmatic for the apostolic ministry. Consider what he says to pastor Timothy:
For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know (1 Thess. 3:4).
Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, which is why I suffer as I do (2 Tim. 1:8-12).
Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus (2 Tim. 2:3).Peter says something similar:
As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Tim. 4:5).
But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed (1 Peter 4:13).When I was preparing to preach an ordination sermon for a friend of mine a few years ago, I scoured my books on "the ministry" looking for a discussion of the role of suffering in the service of a pastor. I found virtually nothing. I turned to Thomas Oden's very insightful book Classical Pastoral Care for some help. His chapter headings hint at some great insights for "the ministry":
Pastoral Care through PreachingThese are all wonderfully helpful chapters and deal with very foundational aspects of the pastoral ministry. But where is the chapter entitled
Pastoral Care through Prayer
Pastoral Care through the Liturgy
Pastoral Care through Baptism
Pastoral Care through Communion
Pastor as Educator of the Soul
Pastoral Care through Enabling Support and Limiting Abuse
Pastoral Care Through Vicarious Suffering?You see, for anyone who's served as a pastor for any length of time in any normal Christian church that would be a pretty accurate description of a crucial dimension of the ministry. So let me try to flesh out an outline of what Paul is getting at in Colossians 1:24-29 in the next few posts.
Continued in Part II.