Suffering to Give Birth to a New World

Last summer our bible class at church was working through the book of Colossians. In one of the classes I was teaching we came to this puzzling text:
Colossians 1.24
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.
What does Paul mean when he says that he is "filling up what is lacking" in Christ's afflictions? We tend to assume that Jesus' sacrifice on the cross was sufficient, lacking in nothing.

So what's Paul talking about?

The scholarship I consulted argued that what Paul is referring to here has to do with the "Messianic woes," a belief held by many Second Temple Jews, Paul included.

The Messianic Woes goes back to the book of Daniel where many passages suggest that the coming reign of the the Son of Man will be ushered in with suffering, persecution and tribulation. The Kingdom of God doesn't come painlessly.

Crucial here is the Jewish view that there are two ages, "the present evil age" and the Messianic "age to come." Many Jews felt that these ages would happen serially, with the "present evil age" ending to be followed by the Messianic age. The Messianic woes, the painful birth pangs of the new age, happen at the transition point, the ending of one age to usher in the next

Paul, however, nuances this two age view, seeing the ages as overlapping. With Jesus the new age has been inaugurated alongside and within the present evil age. This is the classic "already, not yet" dynamic. The new age is breaking into the present evil age but the Kingdom has not yet arrived in its fullness. We await a final consummation.

But in the meantime, as the new age breaks into the present evil age, the transition between the ages--the birth pangs of the coming New Creation--are still characterized by the Messianic Woes, by trials, persecution and tribulation. As Jesus said, "In this world you will have trouble." Also, "Blessed are you when you are persecuted for my name's sake." Or James 1.2-3: "Count it all joy, brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness."

In short, participation in the Kingdom is accompanied by an expectation of suffering and trials. As pioneers of the new age Christians carry the burden of the Messianic woes.

All that to say, what Paul seems to be saying in Colossians 1.24 is that the corporate body of Christ, who is suffering to give birth to the kingdom in the present evil age, "fill up" the sufferings that must take place from now until the consummation of the kingdom. There is X amount of suffering that will take place to fully usher in the Messianic age. So as Christians suffer to inaugurate the new age we are "filling up" this quota of suffering.

In short, to be the people of God is to participate in the Messianic woes. We endure the suffering to make the new age a lived reality in this present evil age.

Christians share and participate in Christ's sufferings to "fill up" what is left of the Messianic woes until the kingdom comes in its fullness.

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