The Mystery of God
Why did Paul suffer so much? What inspired him to face five beatings of thirty-nine stripes by the Jews, thrashings by rods, a stoning, and a multitude of other perils (2 Cor. 11:24-28)? The apostle even viewed these experiences as a privilege, and a reason to rejoice, because it was for the “mystery of God” (cf. Col. 4:3).
The Mystery’s Messenger
Paul was a messenger of the mystery of God. As a result, he suffered tremendously. His perspective, however, was remarkable. He wrote:
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and fill up on my part that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church” (Col. 1:24; quotations are from the ASV).
Was Paul a criminal? No. He was not suffering because of reckless conduct. He was suffering as a Christian — particularly as a minister to the Gentiles. “With the chain upon his wrist” (Eadie, p. 86), he made three observations about his suffering.
The Messenger Suffers Personally
Paul explained that his suffering was to “fill up on my part that which is lacking.” Some commentators have misconstrued this phrase. For instance, T.K. Abbott noted that: “Roman Catholic expositors, including Caietan, Bellarmine, and more recently Bisping, find in the passage a support for the theory that the merits of the saints constitute a treasure of the Church from which indulgences may be granted” (p. 230).
This cannot be the meaning. First, the Catholic view contradicts the nature of the gospel – salvation is by grace through obedient faith, and not of meritorious works (cf. Eph. 2:8; Rom. 1:5; 16:26; Jas. 2:24-26). Second, the Catholic dogma attacks the very foundation of the gospel, which is the redemptive work of Christ. The New Testament teaches that Christ’s sacrifice is all-sufficient and complete (cf. Col. 1:14,20,22,28; 2:3,10; Heb. 2:10). The inspired writer of Hebrews stated the matter concisely. “For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified” (10:14).
So, in what sense did Paul “fill up that which is lacking”? Christ’s redemptive work, while saving us from the wrath of God in judgment (Rom. 5:9), does not free us from the suffering of this life. In fact, the opposite is true. If we follow Christ, we will suffer. The Lord warned us of this (cf. Jn. 16:33; Mt. 5:10-12), and God has allowed us to experience suffering, just as a loving father corrects his son (cf. Heb. 12:5-11). God allows us to suffer for spiritual development (cf. Rom. 5:3-5; Heb. 12:7; 1 Pet. 5:10). Herbert M. Carson observed, “It is for this reason that he rejoices in afflictions because they are within God’s plan for the perfecting of His elect” (p. 52).
The Messenger Suffered for Others
Paul’s suffering also benefited the Colossians – indeed, the whole church. He wrote that the suffering is “for you...for His body’s sake, which is the church.” The preposition translated “for” is huper. Paul’s suffering had “ministerial utility” (Lightfoot, p. 82). He was not suffering in their place; rather, he suffered “in their interest.” Curtis Vaughan described the idea:
“The sufferings, therefore, were for their sake in the sense that they shared in the benefit of the ministry that brought on those sufferings. The second phrase affirms that the benefit of Paul’s suffering extends not simply to the Colossians, nor to the Gentile portion of the church only; they in some sense have a bearing on the whole body of Christ” (p. 189).
Paul defended the Gentiles as legitimate heirs of the promise in Christ, and he worked for their inclusion in the body of Christ on equal terms with the Jews (cf. Gal. 3:26-29; Acts 15:3). Although he was persecuted viciously for this, his apostolic work is influential yet today.
The Messenger Rejoiced in Suffering
Paul rejoiced because of his sufferings. In Colossians 1:19-23, the apostle discussed the redemptive work of Christ. He was a minister of the gospel (v. 23). But that service brought him suffering. Nevertheless, he said, “Now I rejoice....” The term nun, “now,” is not merely transitional. It means, as John Eadie explained, “‘at this present time’; with the chain upon my wrist, I rejoice” (p. 86).
Paul was rejoicing (present tense) while writing, although he was suffering (cf. Acts 28:28-31; Col. 4:18). He did what Christ taught. “Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets that were before you” (Mt. 5:12). A.T. Robertson remarked of Paul, “His conception of his ministry gave Paul a grip on himself and held him above all despair. There was a sense of purpose in his experience” (p. 64).
Paul rejoiced because he filled up on his part that which was lacking of “the afflictions of Christ.” Does this expression refer to the afflictions that Christ endured? That is unlikely for the following reasons. First, the term “afflictions” is never used of Christ’s sufferings on earth, but it is used of the Christians’ experiences (Abbott, p. 230; cf. 2 Cor. 1:5-8). Second, “afflictions of Christ” stands parallel in the passage with “my [Paul’s] sufferings.” Third, the sphere of these “afflictions” was Paul’s flesh. The “afflictions of Christ” is a description of Paul’s suffering.
Why did Paul call his experiences the “afflictions of Christ”? His afflictions were suffered while serving Christ. They were “Christian afflictions,” for they were “incurred in the line of duty” (Vaughan, p. 190). The persecution was, therefore, ultimately directed towards Christ. No doubt Paul could recall the Lord’s statement, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” (Acts 9:4). These afflictions were for “His name’s sake,” that is in the interest of the gospel of which Christ is the chief cornerstone. Paul’s Christian suffering produced Christian joy.
The Mystery’s Message
Paul moved from reflecting on his circumstances to his stewardship of the message. In this connection, he wrote, “...whereof I was made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which was given me to you-ward, to fulfill the word of God” (v. 25). “Dispensation” is translated from the word oikonomia. It conveyed the idea of stewardship. Paul had “in his care” an important message. This statement about the message identified both its source and goal.
The Source of the Message
The message, which Paul preached, was not self-originated. He was doing what the Lord instructed him to do, for he “was given” the stewardship “of God.” He wrote to the Galatians that the gospel, just as he taught it, was received “through revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:11-12).
The Goal of the Message
The message was to be preached in its fullness. Paul was to preach God’s Word in its completeness. Only then could it fulfill its purpose in the world – saving both Jew and Gentile (cf. Rom. 1:16). An incomplete gospel is a perverted gospel (cf. Gal. 1:6-9). It was for this reason that Paul said, “I shrank not from declaring unto you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).
The Mystery’s Meaning
Paul described the word of God as, “the mystery.” He explained the term when he said, “even the mystery which hath been hid for ages and generations: but now hath it been manifested to his saints” (v. 26). God’s word is called a mystery because, though it once was concealed, it now is revealed (cf. Rom. 16:25). This message was undiscoverable by man. God, however, revealed it. “His saints” (i.e., all the saved – not an alleged elite spiritual class) have “heard and learned” the gospel (cf. Jn. 6:45), and they alone fathom “the riches of the glory of this mystery.”
Paul extolled its wonder by saying, “...to whom God was pleased to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (v. 27). God revealed the message because he willed to do so. In discerning the mystery’s meaning, Paul conveyed God’s plan as to its scope and depth.
The Scope of the Mystery
The mystery’s scope makes it an inexhaustible treasure of glory. It is “among the Gentiles.” This priceless idea is also expressed in the words, “God so loved the world...” (Jn. 3:16; emphasis added). Every man, every women, of every class, color, and culture stands to benefit from the revelation of God’s mystery. This is the essence of the praise rendered to Christ in Revelation 5:9. “And they sing a new song, saying, Worthy art thou to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and didst purchase unto God with thy blood men of every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation....”
The Depth of the Mystery
The “riches of the glory of this mystery” is “Christ in you.” God’s “revealed secret” is that salvation is through union with his Son. We have fellowship with him, thereby we have fellowship with the Father (1 Jn. 1:3-4). This spiritual union is accomplished when a penitent individual is “buried with Him in baptism ... through faith in the working of God” (Col. 2:12; cf. Gal. 3:27; Rom. 6:3-4).
Christ is “in you” as he permeates the mind. Paul prayed, “...that ye may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding ... increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1:9,10). The apostle Peter taught that we are saved “through the knowledge of him that called us.” He wrote that we should grow “unto the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and he desired that Christians “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:1-3,8; 3:18). Christ is “in you” according to the knowledge of his love, his life, and the liberty from sin, which is accomplished by his gospel.
As Christ fills the mind and heart, he enables the will and motives. He said, “If ye love me, ye will keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15). God accomplishes, in Christ, what no mere ethical restriction or requirement can do (Rom. 8:1-3); he can strengthen us to overcome the penalty and power of sin (Rom. 8:13). It should be the desire, therefore, of every child of God “to gain Christ and be found in him ... to know him, and the power of his resurrection” (Phil. 3:8-11). To know the full motivating influence of Christ’s redemptive work, ought to be our goal – which necessarily involves the “fellowship of his sufferings.” When, therefore, a person is carefully attentive to obey God’s word, “in him hath the love of God been perfected” (1 Jn. 2:5).
The mystery gives every person that embraces it the “hope of glory.” The saved person rejoices “in the hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:2). A Christian will not only see God in all his glory, he will also share in the glory of Christ. Paul explained to the Philippians, “For our citizenship is in heaven; whence also we wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ: who shall fashion anew the body of our humiliation, that it may be conformed to the body of his glory...” (Phil 3:20-21). Any person who obeys the Lord can be united with him now, and finally be “with him manifested in glory” (Col. 3:4). “And every one that hath this hope set on him purifieth himself, even as he is pure” (1 Jn. 3:3). “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God” (Rom. 11:33).
- Abbott, T. K. n.d. The International Critical Commentary: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians and to the Colossians. Ed. Samuel Driver, et al. Edinburgh: T & T Clark.
- Carson, Herbert M. 1960. The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and Philemon. Vol. 12. Ed. R. V. G. Tasker. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Eadie, John. 1957. Commentary on the Epistle to the Colossians. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Lightfoot, J. B. 1997), The Crossway Classic Commentaries: Colossians and Philemon. Ed. Alister McGrath and J. I. Packer. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
- Robertson, A. T. 1959. Paul and the Intellectuals: The Epistle to the Colossians. Rev. Ed. Nashville, TN: Broadman.
- Vaughan, Curtis, 1978. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Vol. 11. Ed. Frank Gaebelein. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.