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Notes on Colossians 1:25, 26

In the passage before us, the apostle Paul talks about his own ministry.

I find passages like this some of the most interesting parts of Paul’s letters. Here we see his motives in ministry. Here we see what kept him going. Paul is often very open about his discouragements and failures, as well as his successes. In that regard, I have always found 2 Corinthians interesting as well — there we get to see the apostle's motivations, his discouragements, his goals.

In the verses before this in Colossians, he has dealt with more theological issues — though these are issues which have very practical bearing on the readers’ lives. He writes to correct misconceptions which have become prevalent in the Colossian church. He believes that ideas influence behavior — and that is why is so often concerned to correct mistaken theological ideas.

He indicated in the verses just before this, how their very lives are shaped by the message of Christ which was preached to them — a message which they need to keep.

So, the verses before us today reveal his motivations in doing what he does — both in his ministry of preaching and teaching, and in the circulation of public letters like this. What is it that keeps him going?

Verse 24:

ν χαίρω ν τος παθήμασιν πρ μν κα νταναπληρ τ στερήματα τν θλίψεων το Χριστο ν τ σαρκί μου πρ το σώματος ατο, στιν κκλησία, 
"I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church." 

This verse is often jarring to those who first hear it. Wasn't Jesus' sacrifice on the Cross the complete and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the world? What, then, does Paul mean by saying that he is "completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions"?

It appears to me that Paul conceives of Christ as continuing to suffer in the sufferings of the Church — his Body in the world. Yes, the Cross is God reconciling the world to Himself through Christ. Christ did all that was necessary to secure our salvation. John Wesley says that Paul means to speak of: "That which remains to be suffered by his members. These are termed the sufferings of Christ."

Adam Clarke makes the point that Paul uses the word θλιψεις here — the common word for tribulation or affliction — rather than the word παθηματα, which is associated with the passion of Christ. I don't know how much weight to give to that point — we dare not assume that all the New Testament words are technical terms. Nevertheless, it is an interesting point.

Let me return to the point I made earlier: Christ's sufferings are continuing through the sufferings of his Body, the church. This gave meaning to all of Paul's discouragements and setbacks and misunderstandings and rejections. Jesus himself had said to his disciples: "
the servant is not greater than his master." In this way, he warned them that they could expect to suffer the same kind of rejection that he suffered. Matthew 10:24, 25: “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!"

We cannot always expect success. Like the prophets of old, people can be rejected and insulted because they are telling the truth. The message of Christ goes against the grain of human egotism and and self-will and greed.  

But the goal is the make disciples. The goal is to impart the word faithfully. The goal is to bring people ever more fully, into the life of faith and hope and love. It's not an easy job.

Verse 25:

ς γενμην γ δικονος κατ τν οκονομαν το θεο τν δοθεσν μοι ες μς πληρσαι τν λγον το θεο,
“I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known,”  

We sometimes forget that the word “ministry” comes from the idea of servanthood — to minister unto someone. Here Paul uses the word “servanthood” (δικονος) to speak of his calling and vocation. He was called to be a servant. He lives to serve God and to serve the Church. Paul often speaks of himself as a servant (minister) of the gospel (Col 1:23; Eph 3:7), a servant of of God (2 Cor 6:4), or of Christ (2 Cor 11:23), of a new covenant (2 Cor 3:6). But, here the antecedent of “its” appears to be: the Church, the Body of Christ.

There is a danger in conceiving of ministry as serving the Church. Does this mean the pastor is to serve the whims of the Church — giving in to every wish of the various members (as if pastors could do that even if they wanted to!)? I think the idea here is different. Paul is serving the best interests of the Church — and he has an idea of what that is which is derived from the Gospel message that he is bearing. He has an idea of what is right and appropriate for the Church — how it should live and how it should function. He has a vision of what the Body of Christ is supposed to be and he is serving in light of that vision.

For a lot of pastors, that
vision of what the Church ought to be is the source of their frustration. But, I think it is, at best, a creative frustration. The reality of the Church as it actually is, is bound to frustrate. But, don’t let go of the frustration — it shows that at some level you still care — you still sense what ought to be. Keep speaking a new reality into being. Still keep working to foster that new reality. By the grace of God, the Church (an otherwise human institution) becomes the Body of Christ — in the power of God’s Spirit. Miracles happen. God’s love changes lives. People love one another. People desire to be spent in the effort to make the world a better place — out of their sense of God’s Kingdom and purpose. The apostle Paul knew this same frustration, but he did not quit. He believed God in new beginnings — new creations in Christ — and a company of people — the Body of Christ — who would embody the presence of Christ in the world.

Paul is the servant of the church “according to God’s arrangement of things” (κατ
τν οκονομαν το θεοῦ). This realization also helps put things in their proper perspective. He is serving the church in accordance with God’s will and purpose — both for the church and for the whole world. The word οἰκονομία gets translated in various ways in this passage: commission, stewardship, dispensation. I think saying: “arrangement of things” gets us to the heart of the meaning of the word in this passage. This clarifies what Paul means in saying he is a servant of the church — he serves in accord with God’s intention and design. His purpose is to actualize God’s will and purpose. And the success of his ministry is also to be measured by that standard.

And how is all this accomplished?
It is by making God’s Word fully known. This is Paul’s role “according to God’s arrangement of things” — to be a preacher and teacher of God’s Word. He is telling the story of God — and the story of Jesus — in such a way that people can come to a full knowledge of its meaning. A similar expression occurs in Romans 15: 19, where Paul speaks of having “fully proclaimed the good news of Christ” (πεπληρωκέναι τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τοῦ Χριστοῦ).

Something of God’s plan and purpose had been revealed through the Hebrew Scriptures. But, now, through Christ, more is known.

What he means by “fully known” is explained by the verses that follow: Through Christ it has been made known that God has a plan and purpose for salvation for all people.

At the center of Paul’s ministry was a calling to communicate that message in a way that would make a difference in the lives of his hearers.

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