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Suffering for the Cause of Christ

If you haven’t been with us in recent weeks, we’ve been going through the book of Colossians – which is Paul’s letter that he wrote to the church in Colosse. And the content of this letter is basically, “Christianity in a Nutshell.” It’s the basic truths about who Jesus is and what He came to do – and what we should do because of that. And as I eluded to with the kids in the kids time, today in this particular passage, we’re going to be looking at what Paul describes as the secret of Jesus Christ.

Several times throughout the New Testament, Paul refers to Jesus as God’s secret plan – a mystery kept hidden from the beginning of time. So we’re going to look to see what that’s all about. And with that we’re going to look to see what Paul did because of that secret. Paul’s entire life revolved around this secret – so maybe there are some lessons in there for us as well. 

This morning we begin at Colossians chapter 1, verse 24. Paul says…

“I am glad when I suffer for you in my body, for I am participating in the sufferings of Christ that continue for his body, the church. 25 God has given me the responsibility of serving his church by proclaiming his entire message to you. 26 This message was kept secret for centuries and generations past, but now it has been revealed to God’s people. 27 For God wanted them to know that the riches and glory of Christ are for you Gentiles, too. And this is the secret: Christ lives in you. This gives you assurance of sharing his glory.”

Colossians 1:24-27

Ok. Pause here for now. Before we get too far along, let’s take a minute to chew on this.

This first verse 24 can be a little confusing. Paul says…

I am glad when I suffer for you in my body, for I am participating in the sufferings of Christ that continue for his body, the church. Colossians 1:24

Now my first thought as I read that is “what…. say that again…” How is Paul participating in the sufferings of Christ? And further, how do the sufferings of Christ continue even now?

And if you read that in the NIV or the ESV translations, you’re probably even more confused. Here’s what the English Standard Version says.

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” Colossians 1:24 ESV

What in the world does that even mean? How is Paul “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions?” Is Paul saying that something is lacking in what Christ has done for us? Are His afflictions, His suffering on the cross – his death and resurrection is still lacking something? Is our salvation not complete?

No, I don’t think that’s what Paul is saying. When Jesus declared “It is finished” as he died on the cross – he meant that. He completed what He set out to do – and that is to provide salvation for us by dying in our place. We read that purpose in Matthew 20:28.

“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:28

Jesus came to give his life for ours – to exchange our sinfulness for His righteousness. He came to save us from the penalty of our sins. His death paid the price for our sin. And when Jesus died on the cross – it was mission accomplished. It is finished. His suffering, his death on the cross completed the transaction. There was nothing lacking!

There is nothing we need to do – there is nothing we can do – to earn salvation. Christ earned it for us. Going to church does not contribute to our salvation. Being good and morally upright does not contribute to our salvation. Reading our Bible and praying does not contribute to our salvation. Salvation is simply an amazing gift of God for us to accept.

So what is Paul saying – that He is filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions? Well, Paul’s not saying that He is participating in the afflictions that Christ endured to accomplish salvation. Rather, he’s talking about the afflictions experienced by the disciples of Christ (that is, the body of Christ) for the sake Christ as they share the message of Christ. In case I lost you there, let me say that again. Paul is talking about the afflictions experienced by the disciples of Christ for the sake Christ as they share the message of Christ.

John Piper puts it this way regarding this verse: “Christ suffered to accomplish salvation. We suffer to spread salvation.”

When Jesus returned to heaven after his time on earth was complete, he commissioned his disciples to spread the word. They didn’t need to accomplish salvation – they just needed to spread it. To tell others about it. That was what was lacking. Salvation was accomplished, but the world still needed to hear about it.

And Paul would be a key player in sharing this Good news wth the world – but in doing that, he would suffer greatly for the cause of Christ. In fact, when He was converted from Saul to Paul, God plainly said so. In Acts 9:15 we read….

“But the Lord said, “Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel. 16 And I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake.” Acts 9:15-16

As Paul was writing this letter to the Colossians – do you know where he was? He was in prison. He actually spent a lot of his time in prison. In fact, exactly as God declared, his entire ministry was one of suffering for the name of Christ.

In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul gives quick summary of all the things that he had been through for the sake of Christ up until that point. 2 Corinthians 11:24-27

24 Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. 26 I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. 27 I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm. 2 Corinthians 11:24-27

Paul knew all about suffering and afflictions. Christ suffered to accomplish salvation. Paul, as a follower of Christ, suffered to spread salvation. That’s why Paul says:

I am glad when I suffer for you in my body, for I am participating in the sufferings of Christ that continue for his body, the church. Colossians 1:24

Paul was one of the first of a long line of Christians who would suffer for the sake of Christ and for His church. Think of the early Christians who were imprisoned or thrown to the lions because of their faith. Think of guys like William Tyndall who translated the Bible into English and was burned at the stake. Think of Jim Elliot – the famous missionary pilot killed about 60 years ago by the  Auca indians of Ecuador – the very people he was trying to share the Gospel with. The sufferings of Christians for the sake of Christ & His Church have continued right until today. Even now in 2015, Christians still suffer for the sake of Christ.

But suffering never stopped Paul. He was determined to do what God had called him to do. Paul tells us in Colossians 1:25.

God has given me the responsibility of serving his church by proclaiming his entire message to you. 26 This message was kept secret for centuries and generations past, but now it has been revealed to God’s people. 27 For God wanted them to know that the riches and glory of Christ are for you Gentiles, too. And this is the secret: Christ lives in you. This gives you assurance of sharing his glory.”

Colossians 1:24-27

Paul was commissioned to spread the news of Jesus Christ. It didn’t matter what he had to go through – He had been given the responsibility of sharing this ‘secret’ with the world.

It wasn’t a secret because it was reserved for a certain small group of people. It was a secret because God had just recently revealed it. Until Christ’s death and resurrection, God’s plan of salvation was not fully known – even though God had hinted at it all along.

You see throughout the Old Testament times, the Israelites understood that God was going to send the Messiah (the savior) to come and save them – save the Jews. It was very much the idea that God was their God. He had chosen them. They had the hope of Salvation in the Messiah. God’s plan revolved around them. Everyone else was going to be left out. Their understanding was that God would destroy all those pagan sinners and save them – the chosen children of Abraham.

And that was true to a certain extent. God had chosen the Israelites to be His own special people – but it was a means to an end – not the end itself.

He chosen them to be his own special people as a means of reaching the entire world. We see that right from day one when God called Abraham to be the father of the nation of Israel. God tells Abram… 

“I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. 3 I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.”  Genesis 12:2-3

God had called the Israelites as a means of reaching the entire world – all families would be blessed – not just the Israelite families. But for the most part, the Israelites kinda missed that point. They heard the part about God blessing them – choosing them – being their God – but they kinda missed the part about being a blessing to everyone else.

We see that kind of thinking throughout their history. A great example is in the story of Jonah.

God had told Jonah to go and preach to the people of Nineveh – to the Assyrians – and tell them to repent or else God would destroy them. Now the Assyrians were the enemies of the Isrealites. They were the worst of sinners – they didn’t come more pagan then the Ninevites.

So when God told Jonah to go preach and to tell them to repent, Jonah didn’t get it. Why would God even offer them the chance to repent? God’s job was to save the Israelites and destroy all the other pagan sinners. They weren’t the chosen ones – the Israelites were. They didn’t deserve to be spared. They deserved to be destroyed.

That’s why He refused to go to Nineveh. And we know the story – Jonah tries to run, he gets swallowed up by the big fish and eventually gets spit out again… and even after God finally convinced Jonah to go to Nivenah, Jonah still didn’t get it. When all the people repented, Jonah went up on a hill and pouted about it. He was angry at God for sparing them.

We see the same kind of reaction from the Pharisees when Jesus starts hanging out with ‘pagan sinners’ – enjoying their company – even eating with them. Look at Mark 2:15

Later, Levi invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. (There were many people of this kind among Jesus’ followers.) I like how Matthew just throws that in there… 16 But when the teachers of religious law who were Pharisees saw him eating with tax collectors and other sinners, they asked his disciples, “Why does he eat with such scum?”

You see, this made no sense to them. It didn’t fit their understanding of God and His plan. They didn’t know God’s secret yet. But they were about to find out…

17 When Jesus heard this, he told them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” Mark 2:15-17

This is the message that was hidden for centuries and generations – even though God had hinted at it all along. But now, (as we read in Colossians 1:26…)

but now it has been revealed to God’s people. 27 For God wanted them to know that the riches and glory of Christ are for you Gentiles, too. And this is the secret: Christ lives in you (you Gentiles – Salvation is available to you too). This gives you assurance of sharing his glory.”

This is the message that Paul had been commissioned to spread. This secret is why Paul was willing to suffer as much as he did. He had to let everyone know – no matter what the cost. Jesus Christ, the visible image of the invisible God – God in the flesh – had come to bring salvation not just for the Jews, but for everyone. For those who know they are sinners. For those who are willing to repent. Paul was compelled to share this message with everyone he could. In verse 28 he writes:

So we tell others about Christ, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all the wisdom God has given us. We want to present them to God, perfect in their relationship to Christ. 29 That’s why I work and struggle so hard, depending on Christ’s mighty power that works within me. Colossians 1:28-29

There are a couple of things in there we should note: First of all, Paul says “We want to present them to God, perfect in their relationship to Christ.” That word ‘perfect’ doesn’t necessarily mean sinless. It means fully mature or complete – not lacking anything.

Paul wanted to help these Gentiles to grow and mature in their relationship with God. He didn’t want to just tell them about the Good News and then move on. He wanted to present them to God as fully mature followers of Jesus. His job was to go and make disciples – Not just converts. He didn’t want to do only half the job.

We talked last week about how Jesus commissioned the disciples to go and make disciples. That doesn’t just mean – get them to pray the sinner’s prayer and to accept Christ as their Saviour. That’s not the end of the discipleship process. Being a disciple is a lifetime of learning to be like Christ.

Paul actually talks more about this chapter two and we’ll go into that in more detail in the next couple of weeks, but here’s just a quick snapshot of what Paul says. Colossians 2:6-7.

“And now, just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to follow him. 7 Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him.” Colossians 2:6-7

Paul was determined to present everyone who accepted Christ as their Lord as a mature, ever growing Christian. Like a fully mature tree – with deep roots that cannot be easily uprooted. Or like a towering sky-scraper with a deep, unshakable, rock-solid foundation. That’s the kind of disciples that Paul wanted to make. That’s the kind of disciples that can enduring the kind of suffering that Paul did and still be determined to go and make more disciples.

And its to that end that He worked and struggled so hard.

We want to present them to God, perfect in their relationship to Christ. That’s why I work and struggle so hard, depending on Christ’s mighty power that works within me. Colossians 1:28-29

Paul knew that he couldn’t do it alone. His efforts, as great as they were, would accomplish nothing if Christ wasn’t working through him. And at the same time, he also didn’t just sit back and let God do it all either. He worked and struggled (while at the same time depending on the power of God) to present these disciples as mature believers in Christ.

And I think this passage is completely relevant to us today.

Just like Paul, you and I have been commissioned by God to share the good news – to make disciples. Perhaps our call wasn’t as dramatic as Paul’s. We didn’t get blinded on our way to Damascus and then verbally instructed by Jesus Himself. But as followers of Christ, we have the same marching orders. We have the responsibility to proclaim the good news of Jesus and to make disciples.

Now that doesn’t mean that everyone needs to be the person who stands up here and preaches to the crowds. That may not be the role that God has created for you. But you do have a role. Maybe at this point, God wants you to work at Costco and invite your co-workers to church – witnessing to them by how you work and live.  Maybe God wants you to blog about your journey with God on the internet so that some guy in India can read and learn for the first time that God loves them. Maybe God’s role for you is to be that mom or dad that models Christ-likeness to your kids so that they can grow up and do like-wise. Maybe God would have you serve coffee in some coffee shop – and who knows what opportunities you’ll have to talk to people about Christ!?

There are so many different roles in the church! But they all contribute to our one purpose – that is to share the good news of Jesus Christ & to make disciples.

And so far in our country, we can do this with relative easy. We don’t have to go through all the things that Paul went through. So far, I haven’t had to spend any jail time because of my preaching. I’ve never been flogged or stoned. That may not always be the case – it certainly isn’t in other parts of the world right now.

There may be a time – and it may not be too far off – where we cannot legally or safely meet like this. It may become illegal to share the good news about Jesus Christ. Owning a Bible could lead to your imprisonment. It’s happened before – many times actually… and all over the world. We’d be foolish to think it won’t happen here.

Jesus warned his disciples in John 15:20…

“Since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you.” John 15:20

And again in John 16:33…

“Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

We will face persecution. We will have trials and sorrows. As followers of Christ, we will share in the suffering of Christ. That’s a given. But how we will react to it, that remains in question.

Paul said he rejoiced when he suffered for Christ. He was glad. Not that he wanted to suffer and went out looking for it. But in light of what Jesus had done for him, it was an honour (yes, even a joy) to suffer for the cause of Christ.

I don’t know in what ways you & I will suffer for the cause of Christ in our lifetime. I hope its as minor as being laughed at for believing the Bible, or being scoffed at when our neighbours label us as that ‘religious nut’, or being dismissed as a fool by our co-workers when we profess that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, rose from the dead. I hope our persecution is that minor.

But even if it’s not – we can rejoice in our suffering. Like Paul, we can be glad, because we know the secret. We know that Christ lives in us. The God who created the world, who over came the world (as we just read) lives in us. He was persecuted. He suffered. In fact, He was put to death. But He rose again. He conquered death. And because of that, we have the hope of eternal life. As Paul wrote: Christ lives in you. This gives you assurance of sharing his glory.

It’s like that old Fanny Crosby Hymn – Blessed Assurance! Jesus is Mine! Oh what a foretaste of glory divine!

We have that blessed assurance when Christ lives in us. And that assurance – that hope in Jesus is so precious, that we dare not keep it to ourselves!

How cruel and uncaring we would be if we didn’t share this message of hope with our neighbours, with our children, with the people we work with. How can we say we have the love of Christ in us when we don’t tell our friends and neighbours the most important secret of all time!

I sure don’t want to be like Jonah – and refuse to bring the message of hope to the people who need it most.  How dare I think that God’s love is only for me! How many people in Penhold desperately need to know that there is a God in heaven who loves them like crazy! How many people need to know that Jesus wants forgive them for all their wrongs and wants to give them that blessed assurance of eternal life?

I sure don’t want to be like the Pharisees – refusing to even eat with those sinners. We’re all sinners. We’re all in desperate need of God’s love and forgiveness. There’s not a person in Penhold – not a person in the world who’s sin is worse than ours. If God can forgive us, he can forgive anyone.

I want to follow the example of Paul. Like Paul, we need to work and struggle – to do everything we can to share this message of hope with the people around us. But I don’t want to stop at just presenting the Gospel. I’m not content to just get people to pray the sinner’s prayer. I want to help them grow deep and strong and mature. As Pauls says: We want to present them to God, perfect (complete, mature) in their relationship to Christ.

We want to make disciples who are strong enough and mature enough and complete enough to go out and make more disciples.

And of course, to do that, we depend entirely on the mighty power of God that works in us.

God, we pray, that you would work in us – work through us. We have such a precious treasure – such a precious secret that the world around us needs to know. May we not be surprised or ashamed when we suffer for your name. May we rejoice that we can participate in the suffering  of Christ for His Church. Give us the strength and determination we need to share this wonderful good news and to make disciples of all people.

Thank you so much, that you loved us – sinful, pagan, Gentiles. You loved us so much, that you sent your Son Jesus to take the punishment for our sins – and to instead, give us that blessed assurance of life with you forever. Thank you Father. 

May we, like Paul, be faithful in sharing that message of Hope – no matter what the cost.

In Jesus name we pray, amen.

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