"I'm filling up what's lacking in Christ's afflictions." Um, seriously?

In Colossians 1:24, Paul makes the audacious claim to be rejoicing in suffering and the even more preposterous claim to be completing the work of Jesus:

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.

If it were anyone else in the world who said this to me, say over lunch, I'd laugh in their face. But I've come to trust Paul. His experience of Jesus often far outstrips mine, so he says some outlandish things—yet instead of objecting (Seriously?!), I've learned to dig in, ask questions, and learn from him as a spiritual mentor. And the way I do that is by remembering his life context and searching the rest of his letters for clues as to what he had in mind.

Mattia Preti, The Martyrdom of Saint Paul, c. 1656-59

This particular letter from Paul, to the Church in Colossae, was apparently written while Paul was imprisoned in Rome about the year AD 60. He had been a Christian for a few decades by this point and had so vocally supported the inclusive church of the resurrected Messiah that the authorities were attempting to have him executed.

So Paul isn't rejoicing in sufferings in a vacuum. He's rejoicing in sufferings from prison, where he'll soon be beheaded under Emperor Nero. And long before that, he has suffered "far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, often near death", including five sets of lashings, three sets of beatings with rods, a stoning, and three shipwrecks, one of which left him adrift at sea for a night and a day.

Yet he was rejoicing.

Was he rejoicing because he had come to love suffering itself? I don't think so. This doesn't square with his regular emphasis on the importance of the physical world and his hope of its eventual full healing.

Instead, I think he was rejoicing because of what he says immediately afterwards. He was rejoicing in his sufferings because he was getting to help fill up what was lacking in Christ's afflictions. In other words, he was rejoicing in his sufferings because he was getting to partner with Jesus in the work of redemption. This seems to be what Paul is saying when we read the verse in its context:

1:24 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, 25 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, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. 27 To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. 
2:1 For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, 2 that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. 4 I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. 5 For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ.  (Colossians 1:24-2:5)

So next we ask, how is Paul filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions? This passage seems to give two main answers: he shares the word of God, and he prays.

In the first paragraph, he emphasizes his sharing the word of God: he "makes the word of God fully known" (1:25), proclaims Christ (1:28), teaches and warns every human he can (1:28), and toils and struggles with every ounce of supernatural energy God will grant him (1:29). This is what Paul does in general, and it's what he's doing in this very letter.

And in the second paragraph, he emphasizes his prayer. His "struggle" for the Colossians and Laodiceans is prayer. This is the same struggle Paul will later say that Epaphras, the founder of the church in Colossae, continues to have for them, "always struggling on [their] behalf in his prayers" (Colossians 4:12-13). Paul may be distant from them physically, but is "with [them] in spirit" (2:5) as he begs for the word of God to continue transforming them.

And these two acts together, sharing the word of God and prayer, allow Paul to participate with Jesus in His work of redemption. Jesus may not need Paul, but He's chosen to use him—and Paul couldn't be more excited. These two actions were key to Paul's participation with Jesus, yet as I studied this passage all week, I couldn't get 2 Corinthians 4:7-12 out of my head:

7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you. 

Paul is saying the same thing here in 2 Corinthians that he did in Colossians, with a little bit more theological detail and a little bit less practical detail. Practically, as we saw in Colossians, Paul's primary works were sharing the word of God and praying for people. Yet these are never the full expression of what Paul did in joining Jesus' work—Paul's work was all encompassing, requiring every ounce of energy God would give him to be given in love to those around him. There's something entirely personal about Paul's work. He shares his knowledge of the Bible, yes. He shares his experience of Jesus, yes. But even more than that, he shares himself. There's a manifestation of Jesus in the person of Paul, all because of the union between Paul and Jesus that we covered in last week's sermon. Paul could confidently say "I've been crucified with Christ so that I no longer live but Christ lives in me, to such an extent that the life I now live in my flesh I live by faith in this Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me." He's joining in the work of Jesus, filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions, and carrying both the life and death of Jesus in his own body everywhere he goes. "So death is at work in [Paul], but life in [everyone else]."

This whole thought process still fascinates me. It's mysterious and powerful and hopeful. And as much time as I've spent around churches in my life, I still find it surprising—awesome, but surprising because beyond Paul's own claim that he can help Jesus with His work, Paul goes on to show throughout the rest of Colossians that we can too. Look at Colossians 2:12, 3:16, and 4:2-3:

2:12 [You were] buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.
3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
4:2 Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. 3 At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison

In the first of these passages, Paul is explaining that all Christians have been united to Christ in a powerful way. At baptism, we're buried with Jesus. And when we come out of the water, we're joined with Jesus in His resurrection. That means that one day we'll be physically resurrected together with Him. And it also means that even now we can join with Him in doing what He's doing. We can follow Him, yes; but more than that we can imitate Him; and even more than that we can work with Him. This pairing of normal Christians together with Christ is precisely why Paul was able to join in God's work in the first place. And though the details vary for each one of us, we are just as qualified to work with Jesus as Paul was.

With this in mind, it makes perfect sense that Paul would, in 3:16 and 4:2-3, then command all the Christians to do what he was doing. He was rejoicing in suffering because he had been able to join Jesus in the work of redemption through, as we saw above, sharing God's word and prayer. And both of these are directly commanded to all Christians, using the exact same language. Paul was "warning [noutheteo] everyone and teaching [didasko] everyone", and now he commands the believers to all "teach [didasko] and admonish [noutheteo] one another" with this same word of Christ that dwells so richly among us all. Similarly, Paul had earlier claimed to be toiling in prayer on behalf of these Christians, and now he invites them to join him, praying in general and also praying for Paul's continued work. Notice the chain here? Paul is joining with Jesus' work, and he now invites these believers to join him. If these believers join Paul's work, they're joining Jesus' work. And they're doing so by doing the same things Paul did.

So this is our invitation. It's a challenge that will take every ounce of ourselves, and it's also a remarkable opportunity. The God of the universe is inviting us into His own work. We may never suffer in chains for Jesus like Paul did, but we can rejoice in all of our circumstances, good or bad, as long as we're partnering with God through sharing His word and praying for people, manifesting the life and death of Jesus to the real world around us.