Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints (Col. 1:24-26).You see, what Paul's words here mean is that the fullness of the kingdom comes when ministers fill out the sufferings of Christ in service to the church and world. Paul suffers so that the fullness of the kingdom might be experienced by the Colossian Christians. That is why Paul can "rejoice" in his sufferings. Because he knows What his tribulations will produce. As he says in Romans 5:3, ". . . we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces. . . "
So what does it produce? Well, look at the positioning of Paul's suffering. In the text of Colossians 1 his suffering comes after the description of Jesus' preeminence as Lord of the new creation (1:15-20) and the hope that the Colossian Christians would experience the "riches," the "glory," the "full knowledge" of the mystery, "all wisdom," and "maturity" in Christ (1:25-29). Between the enthronement of Jesus and the experience of the fullness of the kingdom is Paul's suffering. This is true not just in the text, but also in the history of the early church. Jesus dies, rises, ascends, and takes his throne, but the expansion and development of his kingdom in the world hinges on the service of the Apostles, especially Paul. One cannot escape the pivotal place of the suffering of the Apostles in the Book of Acts. The kingdom breaks out and expands when the Apostle's suffer.
And they don't just suffer in the abstract or for some unknown reason. They suffer affliction for the church. They suffer on behalf of others, for the benefit of others. The kind of suffering that Paul rejoices Paul's heart is substitutionary. Paul makes this very clear: “I rejoice in my suffering for you . . . for the sake of his body, the church.” Paul rejoices because his sufferings are substitutionary (“for you” and “for the sake of his body”: both phrases use the preposition huper). His suffering means that the Colossians do not have to suffer as much as they might have.
Now, I know that sounds odd to our Presbyterian ears. Doesn’t it? We usually reserve that word “substitutionary” for the sufferings of Christ for us. But we don't need to be afraid of this. It's all over the Bible. This is simply a striking way of describing what other passages in the NT clearly teach:
Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2).Now, of course, Christ's substitutionary suffering and death has a unique, unrepeatable character. But his suffering and death are also exemplary: "Take up your cross and follow me." I'll have to flesh this out a bit later on. But for now we should note carefully how the love of God expressed in Jesus suffering and death exemplifies how we should relate to one another.
"This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends" (John 15:12-13).
By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down [our] lives for the brethren (1 John 3:16).
And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma (Eph. 5:2).
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her (Eph. 5:25).
Continued in Part III.