Updated: Apr 13, 2020
“Afflictions are not merely the result of missionary fruitfulness, but also the means. God has appointed our pain to be part of His powerful display of the glory of Christ.”
John Piper, Filling up the Afflictions of Christ: The Cost of Bringing the Gospel to the Nations in the Lives of William Tyndale, Adoniram Judson, and John Paton; Crossway Books, 2009, p. 10.
Have you ever wondered what Colossians 1:24 means? Roman Catholicism sometimes sees their doctrine of purgatory here. That is wrong. According to context, it is a missionary expansion text, to get the meaning of the sufferings of Christ in the atonement and the mystery of Christ out to the nations. The Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory took centuries to develop and is unknown in the early centuries of church history.
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” Colossians 1:24
We cannot add to the merit, quality, worth, power, or effects of the atonement of Christ; His sufferings were complete to pay the penalty and guilt of sin; and to break sin’s enslavement. We do not add anything to it. So what does the apostle Paul mean? He means that when we go and share the gospel to others, especially unreached nations (see verse 27 – “the Gentiles” = the nations, ethna, ‘εθνη), suffering is one of the ways or means that God uses to present the gospel to others in its fulness of being lived out. It is a means of reaching people as people by being with them and preaching the gospel to others; especially when you are living with them and loving them and preaching the gospel. When you learn another language and culture and live with the people, you are going to suffer in some way, whether by unexpected sickness, death of a loved one, hardships, persecution, financial hardship, being misunderstood, etc. Suffering and our responses to suffering are one of the means of outreach that comes with the Great commission to go and make disciples of all the nations. (Matthew 28:19)
“It means that Paul’s sufferings fill up Christ’s afflictions not by adding anything to their worth, but by extending them to the people they were meant to save.” ( Piper, Ibid, p. 22)
“What is lacking is that the infinite value of Christ’s afflictions is not known and trusted in the world. These afflictions and what they mean are still hidden to most peoples. And God’s intention is that the mystery be revealed to all the nations. [see verse 27] So the afflictions of Christ are “lacking” in the sense that they are not seen and known and loved among the nations. They must be carried by missionaries. And those missionaries “complete” what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ by extending them to others.” ( Piper, ibid, p. 22)
What is lacking in Christ’s afflictions?
“. . . nothing – except one thing, a personal presentation by Christ Himself to the nations of the world. God’s answer to this lack is to call the people of Christ (people like Paul) to make a personal presentation of the afflictions of Christ to the world.” ( ibid, p. 23)
“Therefore, I endure all things for the sake of the elect, in order that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, and with it, eternal glory.” 2 Timothy 2:10
(see the surrounding context in 2 Timothy 1:8, 1:12; 2:3-4; 2:8-9; 3:11-12 about suffering; and the whole book of 2 Timothy.)
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This book helps us understand Colossians 1:24 better.