Gospel Maturity by Gospel Power
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, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.
The main point of the sermon today is threefold. Paul 1) rejoices in suffering as he 2) reveals the gospel mystery in order to 3) reach maturity by the power of Christ. Up to this point, Paul has written this letter to the Colossians and focused primarily on the transcendence and glory of Christ, and the all-encompassing reach of the gospel. In these verses today, we're going to see how those truths collide with real life - like what happens when we suffer, what our words to each other and the world should consist of, and where we get the energy to keep going.
Joy in Suffering
First, let's take a look at the beginning of the passage. We'll chat about a few things and camp out on a couple spots. Let's read v 24-25 again. "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, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the Word of God fully known..." Now first off, there is one potentially confusing part of this passage, that little doozy about Paul somehow filling up what was lacking in the afflictions of Christ. We'll get there. But first, I want to camp out for a bit on the fact that Paul says he is actually rejoicing in his suffering for the sake of the Colossians.
The first thing I want to call attention to here is Paul's past, and what an incredible transformation has occurred here. In Paul's early life, when he was known as Saul, he was actually the one causing the suffering for early believers in the Messiah like these Colossians. He was actively engaged in creating pain and hardship, and throwing people in jail for preaching the gospel message. In Acts 22, as Paul is giving an account of his life before an angry mob in Jerusalem, he says, "I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women..." And what's incredible is that now, the complete opposite has happened. Saul, the villain was been humbled by the Great Hero and transformed into an agent of the upside-down kingdom, where suffering for others in the name of Jesus is something to rejoice in. So the first thing I want for us in this passage is not to feel discouraged by the amazing attitude of self-sacrifice and even seemingly boastful confidence displayed by Paul. This is the man that was actively opposed to Jesus and his followers in every sense, and Jesus knocked him off the horse. Perhaps church is a newer thing for you, or maybe you've been walking with Jesus for a long while now. Either way, I want us to remember that the focus of this passage is not Paul and how awesome he is - but rather, it is a testament to the might of the mysterious gospel message and the King that he represents. Paul keeps calling attention to his status as a minister of the gospel (you can see that in the end of v22 and again book-ending this thought in v25), and contrary to our modern connotation with the now religiously-charged word, Paul is not him elevating himself here. In fact, he's actually lowering himself. The Greek word translated minister here is diakonos, which means one who executes the commands of another - in other words, a servant, a waiter, an attendant. This is one reason why it actually makes sense that Paul goes on to talk about his suffering for the Colossians, and how that images Christ. He isn't thinking of himself! He's thinking for them and he's thinking for his master.
Tim Keller, a pastor and best-selling author out in New York City that many of you likely know, is one of my favorite preachers. Years ago he preached a sermon called, "The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness." In that sermon, he hits on a principle drawing on wisdom from C.S. Lewis and based on 1 Corinthians 1 that I think is foundational for the way Paul responds to suffering in this scenario.
"C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity makes a brilliant observation about gospel-humility at the very end of his chapter on pride. If we were to meet a truly humble person, Lewis says, we would never come away from meeting them thinking they were humble. They would not be always telling us they were a nobody (because a person who keeps saying they are a nobody is actually a self-obsessed person). The thing we would remember from meeting a truly gospel-humble person is how much they seemed to be totally interested in us. Because the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less. Gospel-humility is not needing to think about myself. Not needing to connect things with myself. It is an end to thoughts such as, ‘I’m in this room with these people, does that make me look good? Do I want to be here?’ True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself. The freedom of self-forgetfulness. The blessed rest that only self-forgetfulness brings."
Doesn't that sound like something you'd love to have more of? Let's see if we can learn from Paul here. Paul is rejoicing in his suffering because he has two primary aims in view, neither of which ultimately involve thinking about himself as the end, but as the means. First, he is aiming to glorify Jesus, showing Him to be more valuable than anything this world has to offer. As Pastor David preached on a couple weeks ago from v15-20, Paul can't overstate this glorious Savior, sovereign Lord, and brilliant Treasure. Paul has the glory of that King from beyond the Sea in view, and so he is profoundly happy to be counted worthy to follow in his footsteps, divine footsteps that trudged unflinching to the cross on our behalf. You see this attitude of following and sharing in the sufferings of Christ other places in the Bible. In Acts 5, Peter and the apostles are arrested and beaten by the religious leaders because they had been preaching Christ, and we read "Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name." In 1 Peter 4, the apostle Peter fleshes out the idea even more, "But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you." So I think this is the first main reason that Paul can rejoice in his suffering for the Colossians - he is so completely consumed by the glory of Jesus, and the deep knowledge of the way in which Jesus' greatest glory was revealed in His suffering for us on the cross, that being able to share in that, partake of it, experience more of His presence through it, overwhelms Paul's natural response to pain and springs a sense of joy deep in his soul. I think that's the primary idea he's trying to communicate by talking about how he's somehow "filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ for their sake." He is sharing in the sufferings of Christ, and as such, he is following in his steps. "For to this [suffering for doing good] you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:21)."
Before I finish up on Paul's second aim that produces joy in his suffering, I want to quickly comment on that potentially confusing phrase "what is lacking in Christ's afflictions." The first thing to be said about this phrase is that it cannot mean that there is something actually lacking in the atoning sacrifice of Christ, in relation to our salvation. Even from a few verses earlier in Colossians, we know that the sufferings that Christ endured on our behalf were complete and full in regards to atonement for sin. In verse 20 we see that He reconciled (past tense, complete) to himself all things, making peace by the blood of his cross (his suffering). In Hebrews 12, we see that Jesus is the "founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." He endured the cross in our place, and he sat down on the throne of the universe. On the cross, Jesus himself said, "It is finished." So Jesus' mission in regards to our salvation is done. There is nothing to be added to it.
Which means, what Paul is saying here must be related to the application of that finished work to himself and to the Colossians. On one hand, as we've said, Paul is focused on how his suffering mirrors that of Christ's, how he is following Jesus, walking in the good works prepared for him by God and filling up the suffering of Christ that God has assigned to him. And for the Colossians, there is a sense in which as an apostle, as a messenger from Jesus, Paul is able to embody for them in a physical sense what they did not experience in the presence of Christ.
So let's finish up on the second of Paul's aims that allow him to rejoice in suffering. "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." So did you catch that? After Paul's first focus on glorifying Christ and enjoying his presence even in suffering, his second aim is clearly for the Colossians' sake, for their good, aiming for their joy and progress in the faith. Paul knows that his sufferings have a purpose. At the time that he wrote this letter, he was in prison for preaching the gospel, and prior to that he had been beaten, mocked, arrested, shipwrecked, etc. And Paul is saying all of that was worth it. He sees now how the Colossians were able to hear the gospel from Epaphrus, and he rejoices in the result of his suffering on their behalf. God transforming aliens and enemies into perfect saints by the hearing of the Word of truth will be worth any cost to Paul, and because he's so focused on the output, so motivated by love for others, he can rejoice even in the midst of his own hard situation. This doesn't mean that Paul was perfectly strong and unflinchingly unflappable during his entire trial, like he's not even human. He has information from the Colossians now that has impacted his perspective - he says now I rejoice. Now that I've heard. I can imagine that there were days and nights when Paul didn't look all that strong or joyful. In fact, we hear the Lord encourage Paul in 2 Corinthians 12, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." And Paul responds by talking about his weaknesses and hardships. This is not Superman - this is a weak man given strength by a powerful God.
So, how does this apply to us now in the 21st century in Minneapolis? Let's apply Paul's two-fold joyful self-forgetfulness to our context. First off, let's say you're not a Christian, you're just checking out this Jesus business. What impact does the mindset of this first-century missionary have on you? For starters, you should ask yourself if you've ever seen anything like it. How often do you see people that are truly, unshakably joyful, even when they are criticized by friends, coworkers, or neighbors; when it seems that their worlds fall apart? Do you know that you can experience that kind of freedom from the burden of self-focus? You can escape from the tyranny of making everything all about you. Jesus Christ, the man who is the Son of God, gave up himself in your place so that you could be free. You can know the truth, and the truth will set you free! Now on the other hand, let's say you've been walking with Jesus for a while now. Well, the next time you have a chance to take a stand for the gospel in the midst of a conversation with a neighbor, coworker, family member... Take it! Will you get some flack for it? Probably! Jesus said, "In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, for I have overcome the world." Let's pray and ask our King for the strength to see Him in his full glory, and for the heart for others that we want to see come to know Him that we would endure awkwardness and name-calling and even being ostracized, with the joy of knowing that God has promised to be with us and use our stumbling sacrifice for good.
Revealing the Mystery
Moving on to our second point, Revealing the Mystery. Paul delves into the content of the mission given to him by King Jesus. "...25 according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory." There are two main questions I want us to focus on in this section. What is this mystery, and what does the mystery mean for us? First of all, Paul doesn't waste any breath explaining what the mystery is that has been revealed - it is the Word of God, or the word of truth (the gospel, as we see in chapter 1), the story of rescue, now revealed to the whole world including the Gentiles - those outside of Israel, God's chosen people. From the very beginning after Adam and Eve rebelled against God and brought physical and spiritual death into this world, God had a plan and promised to save humanity through a Rescuer. In Genesis 3:15, God promises the devil, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel." But back then, if that's all you had to go on, pretty mysterious right? This mysterious redemption becomes the central theme behind and over the whole of the Bible. It's actually one of the things that was the most fascinating for me personally when I became a believer in college. The fact that the Bible is much more a story about a Great Hero than primarily a list of rules or moral examples to follow was, and still is, incredibly attractive to me. The Old Testament marches onwards, with the people of Israel continually looking for this Redeemer, this King who would destroy the devil and bless all the nations. God tells Abraham in Genesis 12, "in you all the families of the earth will be blessed." Someone from Abraham's line would bless all the families of the earth, both Jews and Gentiles. But how? Who? This theme continues from Moses picturing Jesus leading his people out of slavery, to God promising King David that one of his offspring would have a kingdom, a throne established forever. And we can confirm all of this Old Testament mystery with the words of Jesus in John 5:39, "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me." Or after His resurrection, Jesus preached the sermon of all sermons to the two men on the Emmaus road, "beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:27)" So what does this mean? Like Paul says, there had been this unsolved mystery for thousands of years that has been revealed now to us, namely, how can we be saved who can save us? And the answer, most unequivocally, is Christ.
Paul says that the pinnacle of this mystery — the riches of the glory — is Christ in you. In Ephesians 3, Paul says that "Christ dwells in your hearts through faith." This would have been something almost incomprehensible to the Old Testament people of God, which is why it is the highest mystery of all. Jesus tells his disciples in John 14, "And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth... You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you." So the way Jesus lives with us and in us is through the Holy Spirit. He is the One who enables our good works and fans the flame of our faith in Jesus. This is not a feeling, this is a reality. While our communion with Christ can fluctuate, our union with Him is always constant when we are united to Him by faith. So be encouraged, weary Christian, as you look back at failures to love God and love others - Jesus, the Great Rescuer King, is in you and has redeemed you. And as you look ahead at the troubling road home, be comforted and strengthened, for God has revealed the greatest mystery in the universe to you, so you can humbly trust Him without fully understanding everything He's doing in your life right now.
Reaching Maturity by the Power of Christ
As we look to conclude this morning's sermon, I want to turn our attention to the goal and the energy source for this ministry of revealing God's great mystery to the world. Because this ministry is not just Paul's, but as followers of Jesus, it is ours. As we say every week, Jesus commands us to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them." What does that look like, and how can we possibly do it?
Firstly, let's look at verse 28. "Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ." The word "everyone" occurs three times in this one sentence. So, and this is a shocker, I think that means everyone. Whether we are engaging in evangelism or discipleship, whether the audience does not know Jesus or knows him well, what each and every person needs to grow and change is more of Jesus. Jesus is Lord over every area of our lives. And what does this look like in practice? Paul tells us it involves both warning and teaching. It's both offensive and defensive, positive and negative, planting and pruning. The first thing Jesus announces when he arrives on the scene in Mark 1:15 is "repent and believe in the gospel." Martin Luther noted that Jesus willed that all of life would be one of repentance. None of us have already arrived at this maturity in Christ - we still have battles with our flesh and temptations to sin. Paul is saying that in our life groups, in our community groups, we need to be committed to each other and secure enough in Christ to humbly call out sin, but remember to do it in the hopeful context of what Jesus has done for us, and the better pleasures that he offers to us. So let us go deeper in teaching each other, pressing the gospel of Jesus into the corners of our lives, but let's not be afraid to help each other repent and turn from sin in order to cling more tightly to the mysterious King who has been revealed to us. Our prize is becoming more like Jesus - kinder, stronger, more peaceful, more joyful, more faithful, more loving.
If this sounds like a tough challenge, Paul gives us a great hope as he closes out this section. Look back at verse 29. "For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me." Reaching the full maturity of Christ, being transformed into his likeness, is a goal worth fighting for with all our being. And yet, just as Christ in us is our hope of glory, Christ's energy is the power source that will ensure that we reach it. We are not passive. We still press on the gas pedal and grab onto the steering wheel - but Christ's power is the fire that keeps the engine roaring.
So my prayer for us at Cities this morning is that we would proclaim Jesus at every chance we get, depending on his strength, even as we rejoice in suffering by forgetting ourselves for the sake of the glorious, mysterious King that we serve and the people that he has promised to dwell in. And that brings us to the Table, where we are freshly reminded of the wondrous mystery that our King would rejoice in his suffering for us, giving us his body and his blood, and allowing us a chance to be strengthened by his power. Let's proclaim Him together in this meal now.
Father, thank you for revealing the mystery of your plan to save all the nations of the world to us, who had no share with you, no reason to deserve what you have offered us. Would you help us now to seek you and trust you to deliver more of your energy to us, propelling us to speak of the mystery revealed, the God of life slain by death, but resurrected in power. Help us to rejoice in our suffering by thinking of ourselves less and being caught up in your glory and our service to others.