June 18, 2012 by Matthew Mason
Anyone who has been a pastor for any length of time, or who knows any pastors, will know that part of pastoral ministry is being kicked to pieces. Repeatedly. It is remarkable for me to reflect on friends in ministry who suffer often with afflictions that seem laser-targeted to press into the weakest, most painful places in their lives. Sometimes this bewilders us, often it distresses us, frequently we shrink from it, but we need to learn to be eager for more. For the sufferings of pastoral ministry come because we serve in union with Christ.
Repeatedly in Colossians Paul speaks of fullness. The Colossians have been filled with all things because they are in Christ, in whom all God’s fullness dwells, and in whom all things in creation hold together. He is the head of all things, pre-eminent in every way, and in him are hidden all God’s treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Having him, we lack nothing.
This throws Colossians 1:24 into stark relief. For the only lack in Colossians is in the afflictions of Christ in Paul’s flesh for the sake of the church. And as, in this epistle, Paul seems to present himself as a model gospel minister, this is surely true for all pastors. Pastor, here’s the great encouragement: your church, however small, however insignificant, has almost everything they need. They lack just one thing: Christ’s sufferings in your flesh.
Although much ink has been spilled over what this verse means―and much more over what it doesn’t mean!―if we follow the Greek word order as closely as English will allow, the basic gist seems fairly clear: “Now, I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body, which is the church.” Translated like this, we see that the lack is not Christ’s afflictions per se, but the-afflictions-of-Christ-in-Paul’s-flesh; the location of the lack is not calvary, but Paul. So intimate is his union with Christ that Christ’s afflictions are being pressed into his flesh; he is being branded, or tattooed, with the marks of Christ. What is true of Christ is true of Paul, and is becoming increasingly true of him, as he eagerly embraces his crucified Lord.
There is a substitutionary character to these sufferings: pastors suffer on behalf of the church (huper x2 in v. 24). As a father might endure hardship to protect his children for their good, so as pastors we are called to embrace suffering for the sake of those we serve. Sometimes the sufferings come from persecution (Paul is writing from prison). Sometimes they come from those in the church hurting us or letting us down (cf. 2 Tim 1:15). Sometimes they come from the weighty burdens of pastoral responsibilities (2 Cor 11:28). Sometimes they come from the sheer hard work of prayer and preaching (Col. 1:29-2:1; 4:12).
But pastoral sufferings are not only for the church’s fullness and maturity. They are also the pathway to our own maturity and full conformity to Christ. We cannot reach fullness as pastors without being filled with Christ’s afflictions for the sake of the church of which we have become servants.
So, as well as suffering on behalf of the church, pastors in their suffering are models for all Christians of what our union with Christ entails. For all have died with him, and been raised with him (2:11-12), and having been raised are called to put to death whatever belongs to the flesh (3:1-5).
None of us is equal to these things. But even as we are filled to the brim with Christ’s afflictions, this happens in union with the One in whom all God’s fullness is pleased to dwell. And so we serve and suffer and struggle with all his energy that he powerfully works within us (1:29). Which means that even as we echo Paul’s prayer for our church (1:9-14), we need it for ourselves. As pastors who suffer for our people in union with Christ, we need God’s Spirit to fill us with knowledge of his will in Christ that we might walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, pleasing him in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all his glorious might for all patience and perseverance, and joyfully giving thanks to the Lord who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.