Editors Note: “Digging Deep” is a series of posts that seek to go below the surface level of issues. These are usually 4,000 plus word essays that inform the reader much more than a typical blog post might. The other posts in this category are The Doctrine of Regeneration and Why Jesus is the Jewish Messiah.
God’s Word is the most important piece of literature that humans possess. It gives life, convicts, transforms, and rebukes. God uses His Word like no other book. That being said, this first section is simply personal observations and is not an attempt to deeply expound upon the text. Colossians 1:24-29 is an interesting and multifaceted passage for many reasons that will be discussed. So in order to grasp a firmer understanding of what God desires to say through it, five different translations were used in the formation of a paraphrase along with a study of the entire book. Those translations were the English Standard Version, the New American Standard Bible, the New Revised Standard Version, the King James Version, and the New Living Translation. Though all five were used to aid in paraphrasing and study, the ESV will be quoted throughout the analysis. The resulted paraphrased version is as follows:
When I am physically afflicted, I rejoice. For I am drinking the same cup of suffering that Christ did for the church. God made me a minister of the church for your sake, so that His Word could be known by all. This message has been veiled since the beginning, but now has been revealed to His people. God wanted to show them how glorious His riches are among the Gentiles. He has done this by putting Christ in you, who is your hope of glory. We proclaim Christ by warning and teaching everyone so that they can be presented as mature in Christ. Christ’s mighty strength empowers me as I work as hard as I can toward this goal.
From the initial reading of the passage, a central idea of the text emerges. It can be stated like this: “Paul claimed that his ministry is for the Colossians’ sake.” Paul’s theme of these verses is simply his ministry. He explained to the Colossians that his ministry is God’s ministry and his goal is their maturity in Christ.
After a thorough reading of the entire book several times in the previously mentioned translations and looking at Colossians 1:24-29 through the lens of the whole book, three main emphases are addressed by Paul. The first is the “mystery” of the gospel (v.26). This mystery is the reason that Paul is doing ministry with the Colossians. He mentions the “mystery” two other times in the book as well (2:2, 4:3). The next emphasis is on Paul’s “warning and teaching” (v.28). Warning and teaching the Colossians is the purpose of the letter. They were obviously contending with false teaching, Therefore, Paul needed to warn them of blasphemous beliefs and teach them Christ-exalting truths. The last emphasis is the theological notion and one of Paul’s favorite soteriological phrases “in Christ” (v.28). Paul uses this phrase or a slight variation of it in Colossians fifteen times (See Colossians 1:14, 16, 19, 22; 2:3, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 15; 3:20; 4:7,17).
The wording Paul uses in Colossians 1:24-29 can seem convoluted and complex. A few questions arise then. “Why did Paul even write this section?” “What does ‘filling up’ Christ’s affliction mean?” “Is Christ’s afflictions really ‘lacking’ even though Jesus said, ‘It is finished’?” “How is the gospel a ‘mystery’?” “Does Paul believe that he could cause the Colossians to be ‘perfect in Christ’?” These are only a few initial questions and more will arise throughout the analysis.
Background of the Book and Passage
Colosse was one of three major cities along the Lycus River Valley in the province of Phrygia. The other two more prominent cities were Hieropolis and Laodicea. Hieropolis was thirteen miles northwest and Laodicea was only ten miles to the west. These were wealthy cities due to the fertile volcanic soils. Sheep in this area produced some of the finest wool. Colosse profited from figs, olives, and “Colossian” wool.
The Colossian people largely worshipped pagan gods. Among the most popular was Greek goddess Cybele. In Greek mythology, she coerced her lover, Attis, to castrate himself so he would not be attracted to another woman. Worshippers would play loud music to her and some men would even castrate themselves to show their devotion. Even though the culture was predominately pagan, the Jewish population was substantial. The Greek emperor Antiochus the Great had transported over 2,000 Jews into the Lydian and Phrygian provinces. Some scholars estimate that by the year 62 BC, the Jewish population had risen to nearly 50,000. Their influence in that region should not be overlooked.
During Paul’s third missionary journey, he passed through the province of Phrygia. He lived in the capital, Ephesus, from AD 52-55. Some manuscripts of Acts 19:9-10a include that he taught “daily in the hall of Tyrannus from the fifth hour to the tenth hour. This continued for two years…” Teaching for five hours everyday for two years led Luke to write in Acts 19:10 that “all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.” Among Paul’s Ephesian audience was Epaphras and Philemon. Epaphras was a Colossian citizen (Col. 4:12) and most likely traveled back to start the church there. The church met in the home of Philemon (Phile. 19). Philemon’s son, Archippus, was likely the pastor of the Colossians (Col. 4:17).
Paul is the stated author of the letter (Col. 1:1) but three arguments have been made against his authorship. First, twenty-five words are unique to this letter from Paul’s other writings. If this author was the same as Philippians, then one would expect to find very similar wording. Second, the heresy that the author addresses resembles Gnosticism, which did not fully develop until the second century. Paul would have died many years before. Lastly, the author’s Christology is too advanced for Paul’s time. The idea that Jesus was Creator God was not seen until John’s gospel, written much later in the first century.
These three arguments prove to be legitimate concerns. However, the case for Paul’s authorship is more convincing. Paul uses twenty-five unique words because the Colossians are battling problems that no other epistolatory church seemed to face. Also, Gnosticism had philosophical roots dating back centuries before it became a widespread belief. Concerning Paul’s Christology in Colossians, similar accounts can be found in Paul’s other writings (1 Cor. 8:6; 2 Cor. 5:19-21; Gal. 3:13; Phil. 2:6-11). The strongest case for Pauline authorship is the similarities between Colossians and the letter to Philemon. H.M. Carson stated that “Philemon… clearly comes from the hand of the apostle. This similarity is so marked that common authorship must be presupposed.” Timothy is noted as Paul’s partner in both letters. Epaphras, Aristachus, Mark, Demas, and Luke are all mentioned in both. Archippus is the recipient of a message in both. Onesimus, the subject of the letter to Philemon, accompanies Tychicus, who delivers the letter to the Colossians. The conclusion of these arguments is that the Bible was correct, Paul is the author of Colossians.
Once Paul is decided upon as the author, finding out where and when he wrote it prove to be a simpler task. The only evidence of his location at the time of writing is in 4:18, “Remember my chains.” He was obviously in prison, but Paul was arrested several time so the question becomes, “Which one?” Three imprisonments have been given as answers — Caesarea, Ephesus, and Rome. Caesarea fails to be plausible because Paul does not mention Philip, his host while in Caesarea, in his list of companions. Ephesus seems more plausible since it is closer to Colosse. However, no Ephesian imprisonment is documented in Acts. If Luke was with him during the writing of Colossians, then that imprisonment would probably be noted. The one in Rome is noted and is the most likely location of writing. Luke detailed Paul’s time in Rome while under house arrest. This took place between A.D. 62-63 so that is also the timeframe in which Colossians was written. This leads scholars to believe the possibility of Paul writing all four “prison epistles” at this time: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon.
Epaphras came to visit Paul sometime during his house arrest in Rome (Col. 1:8). He brought good news and bad news. The good news was that the Colossians had “faith in Christ Jesus and… love… for all the saints” (Col. 1:4). The bad news was that apparently a false teaching had began to infiltrate the church. This heresy seems to be a mixture of Greek and Jewish thought. The Greek side of it has a hint of Gnosticism. This philosophy taught that matter was inherently evil and the spiritual was pure. Paul emphasized Jesus’ humanity the letter to combat the idea that Jesus could not be human. Paul also labors in the first chapter to explain how Jesus was actually the creator, ruler, and redeemer of all things. This heresy taught the worship of angels and asceticism (Col. 2:18). The Jewish side to this heresy involves Jewish laws. Colossians 2:16 says, “Therefore let no one pass judgement on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.” Those spreading this mystery teaching were also saying that Christians had to adhere to Jewish practices. The danger of this heresy was essentially saying, “All religions have their contribution to make, and so you can combine belief in Jesus Christ with the beliefs and practices of other cults,” thus nullifying the supremacy of Christ. Paul was ultimately writing to put Christ back on the supreme throne of the Colossian’s hearts and minds.
The letter to the Colossians is constructed in four main sections: doctrinal, ministerial, correctional. and practical. In the doctrinal section, he elevates Christ as supreme above all. The ministerial sections serves as a declaration of Paul’s love and work for the Colossian people. The real purpose of the letter is seen in the correctional section as it seeks to correct the false teaching in the church. The practical section shows the outworking of the previous three sections. Colossians 1:24-29 is identified as the first half of the ministerial division of the epistle. After declaring how great and grand the glory of Christ and His gospel is, Paul describes how he views his service to the Colossians and the other churches to whom he ministers.
Outline of the Book of Colossians
- Greetings (1:1-14)
- Salutation (1:1-2)
- Thanksgiving (1:3-8)
- Thanks for Faith and Love (1:3-6)
- Thanks for Epaphras (1:7-8)
- Prayer (1:9-14)
- Prayer for Wisdom (1:9-10)
- Prayer for Strength (1:11)
- Prayer of Thanks (1:13-14)
- Doctrinal (1:15-23)
- Supremacy of Christ (1:15-20)
- Christ as Creator (1:15-16)
- Christ as Ruler (1:17-19)
- Christ as Redeemer (1:20)
- Gospel of Christ (1:21-23)
- Our Sin (1:21)
- Christ’s Grace (1:22)
- Our Response (1:23)
- Supremacy of Christ (1:15-20)
- Ministerial (1:24-2:5)
- Paul’s Ministry (1:24-2:1)
- By God (1:24-25)
- For God (1:26-28)
- With God (1:29-2:1)
- Paul’s Encouragement (2:2-5)
- In Love (2:2-3)
- In Spirit (2:4-5)
- Paul’s Ministry (1:24-2:1)
- Correctional (2:6-2:23)
- Heretical Legalism (2:6-17)
- Human Traditions Cannot Save (2:6-8)
- Only Christ Saves (2:9-17)
- Heretical Gnosticism (2:18-23)
- Heretical Legalism (2:6-17)
- Practical (3:1-4:6)
- Look Up (3:1-4)
- Look Away (3:5-11)
- From Old Ways (3:5-8)
- From Old Self (3:9-11)
- Look To (3:12-17)
- The New Ways (3:12-15)
- The Word of Christ (3:16-17)
- Look At (3:18-4:6)
- Family (3:18-21)
- Slaves (3:22-25)
- Masters (4:1)
- Endurance and Wisdom (4:2-6)
- Closing (4:7-18)
- Final Greetings (4:7-17)
- Benediction (4:18)
Exegesis and Exposition of the Passage
Colossian 1:24 begins “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake…” Chairo is the Greek word here for “rejoice” and it is usually used as a greeting (Matt. 26:49; 27:29; 28:9; Mark 15:18; Luke 1:28; John 19:3; Acts 15:23; 23:26; James 1:1). The only other time Paul himself uses chairo in this way is Philippians 4:4. However, this idea of rejoicing in suffering is found elsewhere in Pauline epistles and throughout the New Testament. “Rejoice (chairo) and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:12). “We rejoice (kauchaomai) in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance…” (Rom. 5:3). “Count it all joy (chara), my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds…” (James 1:2). Paul chooses to rejoice in his suffering for the Colossians sake. He mentions or implies three times that his ministry is for them.
The verse continues, “…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…” This verse has perplexed scholars for years, and many interpretations can be ascribed to it. Some commentators say that “Christ’s afflictions” are really just the Church’s afflictions. Roman Catholic commentators have proposed that “Christ’s afflictions” were truly lacking, therefore human suffering was needed to complete the work. Paul just finished (Col. 1:15- expounding upon the fact that Christ’s work was all-sufficient. So he cannot mean that Christ’s affliction (that is His work on the cross) truly lacked saving power.
The interpretation that makes the most exegetical and theological sense comes from John Piper. He states in Desiring God:
Paul’s sufferings complete Christ’s afflictions not by adding anything to their worth, but by extending them to the people they were meant to save. What is lacking in the afflictions of Christ is not that they are deficient in worth, as though they could not sufficiently cover the sins of all who believe. What is lacking is that the infinite value of Christ’s afflictions is not known and trusted in the world.
The only thing that is lacking about Christ’s affliction is that not all have trusted in them. There are people who are not a part of “his body” and Paul rejoices in whatever it takes to build up the church in this way.
The passage continues in verse 25, “of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you…” Earlier in verse 23, Paul stated that he had “became a minister” of the “gospel.” Here, it is the church that he is a minister of. The Gospel and Church are not interchangeable words, but Paul is setting up a parallel. He is saying that they are both so connected, that his ministry cannot be defined without the other. Him being a minister of the Gospel has vast implications on him being a minister of the Church and vice versa.
Paul saw himself as a “steward of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1). He also see himself as one “entrusted with the gospel” (Gal. 2:7; 1 Thes. 2:4; 1 Tim. 1:11). So his mention of his ministry as a stewardship here in Colossians is just a reminder that it is not truly his ministry but God’s. He is reminding them of this since the false teachers, who were gaining ground in Colosse, were merely self-appointed. He wants his readers to know that he did not decide to undergo all of these sufferings for the Church’s sake, but God called him out and entrusted him with the gospel.
Part of this ministry is, “to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints” (Col 1:25b-6). The term “fully known” in Greek is pleroo. It means “to complete or to proclaim completely.” Paul is restating his purpose to proclaim the gospel to “all creation under heaven” (Col. 1:23). The intriguing part of this verse is that he calls this gospel a “mystery” (mysterion). This type of terminology seems to be borrowed from the Greek Mystery religions that might have had influence on the the Colossian church. However, Jesus also uses this word when he explained the nature of his parables in Mark 4:11, “To you has been given the secret (mysterion) of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables.” “Mystery” is not simply a borrowed term, but it is the nature of the gospel.
What makes the gospel so mysterious? The answer comes in verse 27, “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.” One key to understanding this mystery is to not impose English presuppositions on it. Sherlock Holmes or CSI: Miami should not come to mind. It is better understood as a “secret.” If it was a mystery in the English understanding, man would have been able to discover it. It was a secret, therefore God had to “choose” or “willed” (NASB) to reveal it. He kept it “hidden for ages and generations.” There was no way of finding out what it truly was until God initiated the revelation. Though God has revealed it to us, all the implications, all the details, all the characteristics cannot be known. When Paul says, “how great… are the riches (ploutos) of the glory of this mystery…” he implies that this mystery can be known but is as unfathomable as God is. Romans 11:33 shows Paul’s exasperation, “Oh, the depth of the riches (ploutos) and wisdom and knowledge of God!” Similar wording is found in Colossians 2:3, “all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” This mystery has been revealed, yet its depths cannot be comprehended.
Another key is looking at the pronouns. “Them” at the beginning of this verse identifies “his saints” at the end of the last. Paul also mentions “Gentiles” here in verse 27, indicating that he is speaking of two separate groups. In Ephesians 3:6, Paul tells us explicitly “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” So Jews and Gentiles alike are members of God’s family now. Romans 11:33 (quoted above) is the closing of a larger section in Romans where Paul expounds upon the mystery of the Jews and Gentiles being one “tree” or family. As Colossians reveals, the mystery is even deeper than that. John MacArthur writes, “That believers, both Jew and Gentile, now possess the surpassing riches of the indwelling Christ is the glorious revealed mystery.” That is Paul’s point in explaining “this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” “Christ in you” is the emphasis being made in this passage. This is a mirrored image of one of the main themes in the letter and Pauline theology, “in Christ.” He is using the same imagery as Jesus used in John 15:4 “Abide in me, and I in you…” This mystery has a future connotation since it is considered as the “hope of glory.” Christ is in Christians now, but he is coming bodily to transform all those who believe in him. Heinrich Meyer expounds this idea, “According to the context, the δόξα (glory) cannot be anything else than the Messianic glory, the glory of the kingdom, the glorious blessing of the κληρονομία (inheritance), which before the Parousia is the ideal, but after it is the realized, possession of believers.” “Christ in us” is but a down payment (Eph. 1:14) on the true glory that will be revealed when he comes back.
Paul then moves to his responsibilities based on this mystery, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom…” Jesus is the subject of the apostle’s proclamation, not rules and asceticism like the false teaching. J. Vernon McGee noted, “The gospel is not what we preach, but it is who we preach. No man has ever preached the gospel who hasn’t preached Christ.” The “we” here is most likely Paul, Timothy, Epaphras, and the rest of his partners mentioned in 4:7-17. They stand in contrast to the false teachers in Colosse. The false teachers were “deluding” (2:4), “taking captive” (2:8), “passing judgement” (2:16) , and “disqualifying” (2:18). The apostles and disciples were proclaiming (katangello), warning (noutheteo), and teaching (didasko)“with all wisdom” for the Colossians’ sake. With those three words, Paul sums up his preaching ministry. Katangello focuses on declaring the gospel. Noutheteo can also be translated “admonishing” (Acts 20:31), and it emphasizes repentance and correction. Didasko typically describes “ethical instruction, or occasionally apologetics or instruction in the faith.” Though Paul used these words to describe his ministry, he also prescribes them for all Christians: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Col. 3:16).
Paul’s goal was to “present everyone mature in Christ” (Col 1:28b). Some commentators have determined that telios (mature or perfect) is another word Paul has borrowed from the false teachers. He may be using their wording except showing that it can truly be done “in Christ” alone. But the real question of this text is “can Christians actually become ‘perfect?’” (KJV). Paul knows that this presentation of maturity or perfection is ultimately a work of Christ. He mentioned earlier in verse 22, “[Jesus] has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.” The descriptions of “holy and blameless” are typically used in connection with he work of Christ (Eph. 1:4, 5:27; 1 Thes. 3:13; Jude 24). The idea of “maturity” is closely tied with human effort elsewhere in Scripture (1 Cor. 3:1-2; Eph. 4:13-14; Heb. 5:11-14). So Christians should strive for perfection knowing that only Christ will achieve it when he comes in glory.
After speaking about general apostolic ministry (we), Paul returns to the personal in verse 29: “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” “This” obviously refers back to his desire to “present everyone mature in Christ.” Paul’s wording here, “toil” (kopiao) and “struggling” (agonizomai), “suggest the athlete who trains himself into great vigour for some severe enterprise.” He sees himself as one that is running a race and fighting a fight (1 Cor. 9:24-27; 1 Tim. 6:12; 2 Tim. 4:7). The Christian life is not one of easy and luxury. It is a life-long fight or race. An athlete is focused, trained, and discipline. He has purpose and direction and does not get distracted with other affairs (2 Tim. 2:4).
Though Paul considered himself the hardest working apostle, he knew what his source was (1 Cor. 15:10). He knew it was God’s energy (energeia) that He was working (energeo) in him. Energeia is only used for supernatural energy. God does not just strengthen His children, He put His power within them, so that it is no longer them who is working but God through them. Paul’s view of His ministry is God-given (Col. 1:25) and God-powered.
Exegetical Outline of the Passage
- God-Given Ministry (1:24-25a)
- Paul’s Suffering (24a)
- Paul’s Intercession (24b)
- Paul’s Gift (25a)
- God-Centered Ministry (1:25b-28)
- Centered on the Word (25b)
- Centered on the Gospel (26-27a)
- Centered on Jesus (27b-28a)
- Centered on Maturity (28b)
- God-Powered Ministry (1:29)
- Man’s Responsibility (29a)
- God’s Energy (29b)
Resulting Interpretation of the Passage
After careful expositional and exegetical analysis of Colossians 1:24-29, a more accurate paraphrase is needed:
In my suffering, I rejoice because I am doing it for your sake. I am extending Christ’s afflictions to those whom they were for, his church. God has entrusted me with his ministry, which is to fully preach His Gospel, the grand secret that He kept until He decided to tell the Jews. He told them that the Gentiles are going to experience the depth of God’s riches through the indwelling Christ who is the promise of glory. We proclaim Christ by warning and teaching everyone so that they can be presented as mature in Christ. Christ’s mighty strength empowers me as I work as hard as I can toward this goal.
The resulting central idea of the text is similar to the first one: “Paul assured the Colossians that God is working in them and through him for their sake.” The unifying theme is better identified as God’s role in Paul’s ministry.
One of the emphases of this passage is God’s work. God is the one who saved Paul and gave him the ministry (25). God is the one who reveals the mystery of the gospel to whom He chooses (27). God is the one who sustains Paul and all who He has called (29). Another emphasis is Paul’s work. He is undergoing suffering for the Church’s sake (24). He is “filling up” Christ’s afflictions (25). He is preaching, warning, and teaching (28). He is toiling and struggling with everything he has for their maturity in Christ (29).
Most of the initial questions were answered throughout the analysis. One that was not explicitly answered was, “Why did Paul even write this section?” The purpose of the letter to the Colossians is to address the false teaching in the church. Paul had not even met the Colossians (Col. 2:1), he had only heard of their spiritual state from Epaphras (Col. 1:7). So Paul writes this section of the letter to establish his authority over the false teachers. The Colossians needed to know who to trust. By describing his ministry as God given, he is not elevating himself as the false teachers did.
Some hermeneutical principles were needed to exegete this passage. The key principle for this passage, and really any passage, is Scripture interprets Scripture. This principle proved necessary when looking at the word mysterion. Paul wrote about mysterion extensively in Ephesians and those passages are crucial to understanding Colossians 1:26-27. Another helpful principle was using word studies. This was necessary for the word telios. Since some times it could be mean “perfect,” seeing where it is used as such and where it is used as mature was important.
The sermon implications for this text abound. One of the timeless truths is that God gives His ministry to people. All Christians stewards of His gospel and should work towards the betterment of His body. Flowing from that truth is that suffering may come in some way. When that happens, Christians should rejoice as Paul did. Also, the Christian life should uphold Jesus and what He did for the world. Nothing saves but the blood of Jesus, so that should be the focus of the ministry. Last is that no one can boast in their good works for the Lord, because He was over it all. He is the one who gives the grace to preform, the energy to continue, and the results to show. Christians only walk in those good works, “which He prepared beforehand” (Eph. 2:10). God does it all.
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