Friday, February 16, 2007

Accidental Exegesis

A professor mentioned in class the other day Col. 1:24 in passing during a lecture, and, since the implication he drew from it struck me as odd, I looked it up. In New American Standard, the verse reads:
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.
What is "lacking in Christ's afflictions"? I looked at how the verse is translated in different versions, and KJV renders it "behind of the afflictions of Christ," which is not terribly helpful, and NKJV goes with the "lacking" language. Greek parsing of the verse doesn't help much, either, especially given my rudimentary understanding of Greek. A Strong's search confirms in my mind the idea of lacking being the most consistant translation, but still leaves me wondering what the verse means. What do you think?


Ryan said...

The interpretation that jumps to mind is that Paul, as a minister of the gospel, is supplying to the church something which Christ himself, in some significant way, does not, namely immediate physical leadership. Though Christ provided an example of suffering for love in his life and death, and though he leads the church through the Spirit, there does seem to be a significant way in which we as sheep are shepherded to him by the faithful execution of the church offices. Paul seems to be talking about his ministry as an apostle, specifically proclaiming Christ to the nations. This is something that Christ does not need us to do but seems to have chosen to include us in.

mel said...

I can't for the life of me remember where I heard this interpretation, but somewhere, sometime, I heard someone say something to the effect of: what is "lacking in Christ's afflictions" is that believers alive after Christ's time don't get to actually see His suffering, and that Paul's suffering allowed the Colossians to physically see suffering for the gospel... or something like that. It's obviously a bit fuzzy in my mind, and I don't remember whether I agreed with what I heard (or possibly read) at the time or not.

The Bard said...

Mel, your memory might be from Piper, who says something similar in his chapter on suffering in the new edition of Desiring God.

He argues that a believer who suffers is *extending* the suggering of Christ throughout the world by allowing the world to see a human example of suffering for a greater cause. This fits with Paul's claim to "bear in my body the marks of Christ." Piper compares this to Paul's discussion of Epaphroditus in Phil. 2:30.

Brian said...

I agree with Mel's comment, and just want to add that this interpretation seems to make sense in light of the KJV, which is the translation I use. The section to which you are referring says "and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake," which seems to me to mean that he is providing an example of suffering out of love for others and following Christ's example. "Behind of the afflictions of Christ" appears to mean later in time than the suffering of Christ.

Becca said...

The problem with taking it to mean later in time is that it doesn't seem like the Greek supports that reading. Everywhere else that particular Greek word (husterema) appears in the Bible it is in a context where the idea of lacking is the only one that makes sense. Look at the Strong's link in the post.

So, Mel, do I understand that to mean the aspect Christ's suffering "lacked" was exposure to a global audience? If this is the case, Paul's "filling up" isn't complete by a long shot.

Anonymous said...

I think that this verse might be better understood if we consider the example of Simon of Cyrene. By taking up the cross and following Christ, Simon literally made up for what was lacking in Christ's afflictions. So to, when we take up our crosses and follow Christ, when we suffer for his sake and join our suffering to his, we help to bring to completion the salvation that his suffering bought for us.


mel said...

Becca, I think the Bard is probably right about my memory being from Desiring God. I wish I could look it up, but I'm 3 hours away from my copy of the book right now. :) I hesitate to elaborate further without refreshing my memory of what Piper said... but if you'd like to remind me in about a month, I should be able to look it up. :)

Becca said...

So, Josiah, is our suffering necessary to our salvation under that reading? If so, what exactly is meant by suffering? The general sacrifice of a yeilded life?

Pleased to hear the Bard met you in person last weekend, BTW. I'm glad to know more than 2 or 3 people read this every now and then. :-)

Anonymous said...

Josiah says:

Our suffering isn't necessary for our salvation; but it is a certainty, whether we are saved or not. The, for lack of a better word, cool thing about Christianity is that it allows us to transform our suffering into something positive and productive, rather than simply a useless waste.

Here is what JPII had to say about Col. 1:24. I can't say I fully understand it, but I think there's something there:

The mystery of the Church is expressed in this: that already in the act of Baptism, which brings about a configuration with Christ, and then through his Sacrifice—sacramentally through the Eucharist—the Church is continually being built up spiritually as the Body of Christ. In this Body, Christ wishes to be united with every individual, and in a special way he is united with those who suffer. The words quoted above from the Letter to the Colossians bear witness to the exceptional nature of this union. For, whoever suffers in union with Christ— just as the Apostle Paul bears his "tribulations" in union with Christ— not only receives from Christ that strength already referred to but also "completes" by his suffering "what is lacking in Christ's afflictions". This evangelical outlook especially highlights the truth concerning the creative character of suffering. The sufferings of Christ created the good of the world's redemption. This good in itself is inexhaustible and infinite. No man can add anything to it. But at the same time, in the mystery of the Church as his Body, Christ has in a sense opened his own redemptive suffering to all human suffering. In so far as man becomes a sharer in Christ's sufferings—in any part of the world and at any time in history—to that extent he in his own way completes the suffering through which Christ accomplished the Redemption of the world.

Does this mean that the Redemption achieved by Christ is not complete? No. It only means that the Redemption, accomplished through satisfactory love, remains always open to all love expressed in human suffering. In this dimension—the dimension of love—the Redemption which has already been completely accomplished is, in a certain sense, constantly being accomplished. Christ achieved the Redemption completely and to the very limits but at the same time he did not bring it to a close. In this redemptive suffering, through which the Redemption of the world was accomplished, Christ opened himself from the beginning to every human suffering and constantly does so. Yes, it seems to be part of the very essence of Christ's redemptive suffering that this suffering requires to be unceasingly completed.

Thus, with this openness to every human suffering, Christ has accomplished the world's Redemption through his own suffering. For, at the same time, this Redemption, even though it was completely achieved by Christ's suffering, lives on and in its own special way develops in the history of man. It lives and develops as the body of Christ, the Church, and in this dimension every human suffering, by reason of the loving union with Christ, completes the suffering of Christ. It completes that suffering just as the Church completes the redemptive work of Christ. The mystery of the Church—that body which completes in itself also Christ's crucified and risen body—indicates at the same time the space or context in which human sufferings complete the sufferings of Christ. Only within this radius and dimension of the Church as the Body of Christ, which continually develops in space and time, can one think and speak of "what is lacking" in the sufferings of Christ. The Apostle, in fact, makes this clear when he writes of "completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church".

John said...

I really appreciated reading your post and your comments page on this. My thinking is that we have a problem:
• Christ has suffered.
• We still suffer.

And we have a solution:
• Christ completed the work of atonement on the cross, knew that it was finished and said, 'I thirst.' so he did not put an immediate end to suffering or he himself would not have been thirsty.

In order that we look for salvation only to the finished work of Christ we are shown that that work was not simply suffering because if it had been then all the Lord's people suffer and it wasn't the display of suffering because the apostles, including Paul, had their sufferings put on display. And why is the suffering of some of God's saints put on display in this way?

So that we do not look for salvation to what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ but to what isn't lacking. There is nothing lacking that saves from sin but nothing points to a suffering Saviour than a suffering saint. What is lacking isn't just the suffering endured but the witness of suffering to the whole world. We should never settle for a gospel that has Christ merely doing what any witness could have done. When he died there was nothing lacking for our salvation at all.