Suffering (pt 2)

The Essence of Paul’s Ministry

Luke records for his readers an important aspect of the ministry of Paul. First, it clearly shows that Paul was God’s “chosen instrument” to spread the gospel to the Gentiles peoples of the world as well as kings and Jews (Acts 9:15). But the passage also says that God will show him how much he will have to suffer for God’s name (9:16). Thus, Luke informs his readers that while Paul will be God’s instrument for the furthering of the Gospel, his ministry will also be marked by suffering. The idea that Paul would suffer much in his ministry is bore out by several passages.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul makes clear that to boast in one’s own strength is foolish.[1] Yet, he chooses to boast in his weakness so that he might “unmask” his opponents’ behavior as being ridiculous.[2] Through Paul’s boasting in his weakness we are given a list of the ways in which he suffered (2 Cor 11:23-28). One reads that he was beaten by both Jew (“lashes”) and Gentile (“rod”) in vv. 24-25. One would have received such punishment from the synagogue for such things as false teaching, blasphemy, and serious violation of the law.[3] This was one of the most severe punishments allowed (cf. Deut 25:1-3). Paul also says he was stoned once and shipwrecked multiple times (v. 25). He says that anywhere and everywhere he has gone there has been danger (v. 26), and that many times he has gone without food and shelter (v. 27).

Upon hearing about all that Paul suffered, one cannot help but ask, ‘what did all this suffering accomplish? Why did Paul allow himself to go through these incidents, and why does he boast in them?’ Paul himself answers this question throughout his epistles. Paul tells his readers that one of the foremost reasons for his suffering is that through it the gospel might be spread.

In Philippians, Paul states this directly: “Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone, and that most of the brethren trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the Word of God without fear” (1:12-18). Apparently, some of Paul’s critics thought that he had somehow erred by allowing himself to be thrown into prison.[4] However, it is clear from the passage that Paul had not erred. On the contrary, he had made a calculated decision to appeal to the Emperor (cf. Acts 26), knowing it would give him more opportunity to share the gospel with those in the Roman government, even a full Praetorian guard, which could have numbered close to nine thousand.[5] In the end, Paul was not concerned with his own well-being. He was willing to suffer the hardships of Roman imprisonment if it could give him cause to further the gospel.

In Ephesians, Paul bases his distinctive ministry on the assertion that he is a “prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of [the] Gentiles”[6] (3:1). Paul wants to show the Gentiles that it was his willingness to share the gospel with them that had caused his imprisonment. It was his proclamation of a law-free gospel to Gentile peoples that resulted in his arrest in Jerusalem, Caesarea, and Rome (cf. Acts 21:71-36, Rom 15:14-32).[7] Again, Paul was willing to endure suffering so that the gospel might go forth and allow all men to know grace of God (cf. 1 Thess 2:1-12).

In anticipation of his readers being discouraged because of his suffering, Paul encourages them a few verses later (Eph 3:13).[8] Paul has laid out the great truths of God’s plan of salvation and the role of the Gentiles and himself within that plan (3:2-12). Now, he seeks to show them that the suffering he endures is for their sake. In fact, it is ultimately for “their glory.” While some have tried to interpret this to mean “for their honor,” this does not seem to fit Paul’s teaching about the organic relationship between suffering and glory (cf. 2 Cor 4:17; Rom 8:17, 18).[9] Paul means that the suffering he endures is a result of his spreading the gospel to the Gentiles, which in turn will result in their end-time glorification.[10]

Proclaiming the gospel was central to Paul’s ministry. Paul affirms that it is only through the preaching of the gospel that men may know Christ (Rom 10:14). In Colossians, Paul again links his suffering with his preaching. He says, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might fully carry out preaching of the word of God” (Col 1:24-26; cf. Gal 4:12-14).

This paper has already established that Paul did indeed believe that the suffering and death of Christ were both unique and sufficient for salvation. And yet this passage would seem to suggest he believed otherwise. The statements that Paul makes in these verses are unparalleled in the rest of his writings, even the rest of the New Testament.[11] How is one to reconcile this teaching with Paul’s other teachings about the suffering and death of Christ? Since this verse appears to be the anomalous teaching, while the other teaching (Christ’s sufficient death) appears to be that which Paul normally taught, it would be wise to begin with a more detailed examination of the Colossian’s passage.

Paul has just spoken about him being made a minister in the proclamation of the gospel (v. 23). Then he says that he rejoices in the sufferings he has endured for the Colossian believers and explains that this is part of “filling up” what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions (v. 24). This has been interpreted in at least five ways in the past.[12] First, some have said that there was something lacking in the vicarious sufferings of Christ. This interpretation has largely fallen by the wayside in modern scholarship.[13] A second way of interpreting the passage has been to understand the genitive as objective, thus meaning “for the sake of Christ.” In the end, this interpretation, however, fails to account that Paul says that he is somehow filling up for that which is “lacking” in Christ’s sufferings.[14] A third understanding of the text again deals with the geniti
, but this time in seeing it as one of quality. Those who adhere to this understanding would then see Paul’s suffering as being similar to those of Christ. This falls to the same criticism of the above in that it too cannot account for that which Paul says “is lacking” in Christ’s sufferings. A fourth way of approaching the passage interprets Paul to mean some sort of mystical union with Christ. All of Paul’s ministry would be bound up in a mystical union with Christ, thus those sufferings experienced by him would be part of that mystical union. Some would say that these words apply to Paul alone (e.g. Deissmann and Schmid) while others would say that they apply to all Christians (e.g. Schneider and Dibelius).[15] Lohmeyer criticizes this view, again attacking the troublesome phrase “what is lacking”: “in a ‘mystical suffering in accordance with Christ’ either the entire suffering of Christ is present and ‘what is lacking’ is never perceptible, or else personal suffering of faith remains separate from the exemplary sufferings of Christ.”[16]

The fifth and most likely correct understanding of this text bases its interpretation in light of Paul’s understanding of the “already/not yet” aspects of this age.[17] Instead of a one-time move from this age into the next, the world experiences a transition that is long and drawn out. One could even say that these ages ‘overlap’ one another. Paul’s thought in Col 1:24-25 is best understood in the context of his transforming the Rabbinic understanding of the Messianic woes in light of the coming of Jesus Christ.[18]

Wright explains that Rabbinic writers understood world history to be divided into two ages – this present, evil age and the Messianic age to come (Rom 8:18-25; Gal 1:4).[19] He goes on to say that when the “great moment arrives from history to move from one age to the next, God’s people will suffer (so it was believed) extraordinary tribulations, which were to be understood as the birthpangs of the new age (Rom 8:22)…. [Now that Christ had come, Paul believed] Jesus’ resurrection had inaugurated the new age, but the old would continue along side it until Jesus’ second coming.”[20] All of creation is groaning for its renewal and transformation, which result in these “birthpangs.” This entire ‘overlap’ age would be characterized by those Messianic woes, or birthpangs for the age to come.[21]

Understanding the context of Col 1:24-25 in this way enables one to see Paul as suffering in a corollary manner to Christ.[22] Paul replicates the cross through his suffering, while not adding to its achievement. In a sense, the cross and the sufferings of Christ serve as the birthpang of this age.[23] Paul is “filling up” what is “lacking” in the sense that he is filling up the afflictions that are to be expected during this age. He is helping to complete all the sufferings, (birthpangs) that must occur until Jesus, the Messiah returns.[24]


[1]Scott Hafemann, 2 Corinthians, NIVAC (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 438.



[4]D. A. Carson, Basic for Believers: An Exposition of Philippians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 22.


[6]Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 226.


[8]Ibid., 250.

[9]Ibid, 251.

[10]Ibid., 251-252.

[11]Peter T. O’Brien, Colossians and Philemon, WBC, vol. 44 (Waco: Word, 1982), 75.

[12]Ibid., 77-78.

[13]Ibid., 77.

[14]Linda L. Belleville, “‘Imitate Me Just as I Imitate Christ’: Discipleship in the Corinthians Correspondence,” in Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, ed. Richard N. Longenecker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 134.

[15]O’Brien, Colossians and Philemon, 78.

[16]Ibid., as translated by O’Brien, from E. Lohmeyer, “Probleme paulinischer Theologie. I. B

riefliche Grussuberschriften,” ZNW 26 (1927), 158-73.


[18]N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon, TNTC, vol. 12 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 87-88.


[20]Ibid., 88.


[22]Schreiner, “The Pauline Mission, Ministry, and Suffering,” 61.

[23]Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 89.


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