This is a series of brief looks at Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians. My purpose is not to write a full exposition but to show how much can be gained by looking carefully at what the text says. Too often we skip quickly from glancing at the text to parroting what we’ve heard before and believed already. That is no way to learn anything new from the Bible. Learning comes first and foremost from looking, looking attentively, looking for a long time.
Paul ended the last sentence with a reference to his own ministry of spreading the Good News, the Gospel.* Now, he tells us, he is rejoicing in his work, though it involved a great deal of hardship. He is suffering but counts it a privilege because he is doing so for the good of others and because he is “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. . .”
Over the years I’ve been amused at how many people are bothered by Paul’s suggestion that there was something lacking in Christ’s work. Because, for a variety of historical reasons during the 19th and early 20th century, the evangelical church tended to become centered on salvation, everything was interpreted in that light. It is true that all the work necessary for our salvation was accomplished by the Cross and the Empty Tomb of Jesus Christ.
And yet Paul is suffering and a great many people have been martyred over the centuries. Why is that and what does it mean?
The foundation of the Gospel is the work of Christ but the full effect of that Gospel does not come until the Word is spread and accepted. And there is the occasion for Paul’s suffering. Remember that in this epistle Paul is concerned not with calling the Colossians to begin their Christian life but to continue faithfully to follow Jesus Christ. It is the full effect of the Gospel that Paul has in mind. And that full effect is costing him a great deal.
We’ve so emphasized the “free Gospel” that we have failed badly in three obvious ways. First, the “free Gospel” cost Jesus his life. It was not free at all. It’s just that Jesus paid the basic price. Second, the “free Gospel” is hated by those who refuse to submit to the Lord and they make the spread of the Gospel a very costly affair.
Third, have we conservatives not read the powerful call of Jesus to his followers? Listen carefully:
And he called to him the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. (Mark 8:34-35).
To accept the “free” Gospel is to pay the same price Jesus did — we have to lose our lives. Pretty hard to wiggle out of that one, eh?
*By the way, have you ever explored that word? It has evolved from the Old English word “godspel,” meaning a good story or good news. We still speak of good stories as casting a spell over its listeners. The Greek word used in the NT is euaggelion, pronounced u-an-GEL-ion, from which we get the word “angel.” It means good angel (a messenger) or good message.