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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – Paul's Suffering (1:23-24)
Paul's Suffering (1:23-24)

The last half of verse 23 is transitional, shifting the reader's attention from God to Paul and also from the content of God's message to the character of God's messenger. The phrase the hope held out in the gospel echoes the beginning of Paul's letter, where in 1:4-6 he thanks God for his audience's faith, love and hope—the "fruit" of God's gospel. For rhetorical effect, Paul's echo may well suggest that everything sandwiched in between (especially 1:13-23) is the theological content of the gospel's hope, which the Colossians have heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature. As before, the believer's hope for future perfection is based upon what has already taken place on the cross of Christ (see 1:20). The church's future destiny is tied to Christ's. Not only is the faith community reconciled to God by Christ's bodily death, but believers have confidence in their final vindication by participating together in his bodily resurrection (Rom 6:4; 1 Cor 15). In this sense, the church's future hope is not some theological abstraction; it is justified by past events.

The grammar of this verse demands that we place the next two parallel phrases in subordination to the gospel. It is God's gospel that is heard and that has been proclaimed; and it is the gospel of which I, Paul, have become a servant. Paul does not insist that his apostolic office hold the reader's attention, nor is it he who secures the church's hope in the absence of Jesus; rather, the gospel's message is that the crucified and risen Lord Christ justifies human hope. Paul's boast is in him (compare Rom 5:1-11).

Surely public attacks on Christianity are often routed by way of the messenger. We make easier targets than God's grace, and for most of us the integrity of what is proclaimed is measured by who proclaims it. Still, Paul is careful to locate himself under the gospel, as its servant, and talks about himself only after outlining the content of what and whom he has been called to preach.

The gospel is for every creature under heaven. The word for "creature" (ktisis) refers to every human being and delimits the universal scope of the gospel ministry. In this context, however, it also echoes Paul's earlier claim that the exalted Lord Christ is "firstborn over all creation" (ktisis; 1:15). If the Christ Paul proclaims is Lord of creation, then surely the salvation he has effected on God's behalf is offered to every creature as well.

The plain meaning of Paul's words challenges those who limit God's salvation to only a few. The purpose of Paul's christological statements thus far in the letter is to extend Christ's lordship to include everyone and everything. The missionary implication is that everyone outside of Christ must be confronted with this very truth: that even the lost live under Christ's cosmic lordship and by faith can also be beneficiaries of God's grace in him. His is not an exclusive reign; it intends the reconciliation of every creature to God, to rescue all from "darkness" and to fulfill in each person the Creator's good and perfect intentions.

The idea of Paul's suffering, found in the first part of verse 24, should not be separated too severely from his self-understanding as a servant of the gospel. In fact, in the biblical tradition the two belong together: like Christ and the prophets of God before him, Paul is a "suffering servant." Against the biblical background and the memory of Jesus, Paul interprets his suffering as the cost of his servanthood and provides evidence of his devotion to God's call. This impression is intensified by the emphatic way Paul introduces himself here—ego Paulus, "I, Paul." Moreover, the ministry of the servant who suffers in obedience to God's call will eventually yield the fruit of God's salvation; that is, the suffering of the servant results in salvation (compare Mk 8:34-8; 1 Pet 2:21-25).

In fact, Paul will return to his servanthood in verse 25 when speaking of God's commission for his ministry to the Gentiles. This may help explain why Paul also speaks of his suffering in terms of his relationship with his Gentile readership: for you (that is, Colossian Gentiles) I, Paul, suffered. Since he does not know the Colossian readers personally, never having visited them (see 2:1), it is difficult to understand his words here as an expression of intimacy or personal commitment. Certainly his imprisonment proves his devotion to the wider Gentile mission; but it is primarily his devotion to God that Paul has in mind. God, and not the Colossians, has called him to preach the gospel at the cost of personal suffering. This point is repeated in Paul's other autobiographies, where his service to God is stressed in contrast to self-interest (for example, Gal 1—2).

According to the mythology of the Hellenistic world, the heroic suffering of great leaders at the hands of outsiders was thought to vindicate their integrity, and sometimes also the value of their teaching for the community. Ancient biographical literature often stressed the costliness of virtue and truth. Against this literary backdrop, then, Paul's reference to his suffering may well make two critical points about his intentions for his Hellenistic readers: his gospel ministry proves his faithful service to God, and it proves the value of what he now writes.

What, however, is the plain meaning of Paul's cryptic phrase that his suffering fill[s] up . . . what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions? In what sense does the suffering of Christ "lack" anything? And in what sense does Paul's suffering "fill up" what Christ's suffering lacks, if anything? I have argued that here Paul's emphasis is not on God's salvation, as before, but on Christ's church. To the point, Paul is surely not saying that the Lord Christ lacks anything as the messianic agent of God's salvation; nor does he mean that the redemptive results of his death need to be supplemented by Paul. His previous confession of Christ's lordship (1:15-20) and his subsequent assertion of God's forgiveness (2:13-14) testify to Paul's confidence in the sufficiency of Christ's work. Lohse is quite right, then, to object to any interpretation that renders this phrase as a reference to the community's "mystical union" with a suffering Christ, whereby the community is absorbed into and derives spiritual benefit from Christ's passion (1971:69). In fact, Paul rarely speaks in his writings of Christ's suffering (as distinguished from his death) and almost never of Christ's suffering in terms of God's salvation (as the writer of 1 Peter, for instance, does in 1 Pet 2:20-22). The images of a suffering Christ in Paul's writings are usually employed to illustrate and interpret his own suffering as a missionary. Here suffering is exemplary of servanthood, but not expiatory of sin. In this way Christ's suffering is logically parallel to his own; like Christ, Paul is God's "suffering servant"; and like Christ's, his suffering indicates obedience to God's commission.

Most scholars understand Paul's reference to Christ's afflictions as a catchphrase from Jewish apocalypticism. In this tradition, Jews understood Israel's suffering as a sign of the last days and a condition for the coming of the Messiah (see O'Brien 1982:76-80). Some even assigned a fixed amount of suffering which, when satisfied, would result in the apocalypse of God's salvation. Israel's suffering, then, was the "birthpangs" of the promised new covenant (compare Jer 31:31) about to become a reality. According to O'Brien, some early Christians, especially within the Jewish church, believed that Jesus' suffering had initiated the "last days" of ever-increasing trials and tribulations (see Mt 24:4-29), when the "true" Israel (the community of Christ's disciples) would suffer for his name (Mt 5:11-12) in order to fulfill this quota fixed by God. With this condition met, Messiah would return in triumph to usher heaven into earth (Mt 24:30-31). If Paul had this apocalyptic formula in mind, then his reference to sharing in Jesus' suffering would indicate that the "last days" of salvation's history have already commenced. In this light Paul's suffering "fills up" what is lacking from what God has assigned the church to suffer.

Paul's phrase, however, is to be taken metaphorically rather than literally. Speaking of completing requisite suffering is yet another way of calling attention to the importance of completing the Gentile mission. In Paul's conception of the Gentile mission, his evangelistic work brings into Israel's number the "fullness of the Gentiles" (Rom 11:1-24) that will trigger the Lord's return to earth and ethnic Israel's return to God (Rom 11:25-26). Even in this passage Paul repeats the root of to fill to stress that the aim of his personal sacrifice—I fill up [antanapleroo] in my flesh—is to complete his mission: to present to you the word of God in its fullness [plerosai].

In this letter, then, Paul's imprisonment has come to symbolize his Gentile mission: his mission has resulted not only in countless conversions but also in imprisonment. Yet his personal suffering symbolizes his faithful attention to God's election of Gentiles for salvation and God's commission for him to prepare the Gentile church for the return of Christ. Paul rejoices, then, knowing that his ministry will bring God's coming triumph that much closer to his readers.

Of course, Paul's intent in drawing a parallel between himself and Christ may only be to impress his readers that his ministry is in fundamental continuity with Christ's: both are suffering servants, devoted to making God's salvation a reality for every creature.

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