Graciously Granted Sufferings


by J. Philip Scranton

"I AM NOW rejoicing in my sufferings for you, and am filling up in my flesh, in His stead, the deficiencies of the afflictions of Christ, for His body, which is the ecclesia of which I became a dispenser, in accord with the administration of God, which is granted to me for you, to complete the word of God...." (Col.1: 24,25).

Our title is a phrase which has been a source of bewilderment and even consternation to many a mind. Probably the most unsettling thought raised by these words is the suggestion that possibly something was lacking in Christ's sufferings of the cross. Yet this is obviously not what Paul intended to convey, because shorfly he would confirm that "you are complete in Him" (Col.2:10).

By highlighting three phrases in this passage, we may be able to focus more clearly on Paul's thought: " sufferings for you,...the deficiencies of the afflictions of Christ, for His accord with the administration of God, which is granted to me for you...." Notice that Paul's sufferings, the afflictions of Christ and Paul's dispensing according to God's administration, were all "for" the Colossians, either specifically or as members of the body. The benefit of the Colossians is the connecting link.

What, then, was the purpose of these sufferings? Verses 28 and 29 tell us that Paul was toiling and struggling "that we should be presenting every man mature in Christ Jesus." And the remainder of the epistle follows on the statement: "I want you to perceive what the struggle amounts to which I am having for your sakes...." Paul was stressing the idea that his hardships were a necessary and divinely designed part of his ministry. It is easy to overlook the fact that Paul's imprisonment, sufferings and struggles were all related to the maturing of the members of the ecclesias. "And the majority of the brethren, having confidence in the Lord as to my bonds, are more exceedingly daring to speak the word of God fearlessly" (Phil.1:14). "Little children mine, with whom I am travailing again until Christ may be formed in you!" (Gal.4:19). "For we who are living are ever being given up to death because of Jesus, that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So that death is operating in us, yet life in you....For all is because of you, that the grace, increasing through the majority, should be superabounding in thanksgiving to the glory of God" (2 Cor.4:11,12,15).

As long as we are living in a wicked eon (Gal.1:4), in which Satan is god (2 Cor.4:4), the true God will be building His works upon a foundation of suffering. This must be so that "the transcendence of the power may be of God and not of us" (2 Cor.4: 7). And so to believers, and especially those who nurture the younger in faith, "it is graciously granted, for Christ's sake, not only to be believing on Him, but to be suffering for His sake also" (Phil.1:29). But this suffering is not a suffering limited to individuals on this terrestrial sphere. Rather, it is "the fellowship of His sufferings" (Phil.3:10). For whenever the members of Christ's body are persecuted, it is Christ Who is persecuted (Acts 9:4). Thus Paul was the participating display of suffering in the flesh in the stead of Christ (Col.1:24). Or we might say that Christ was suffering, through Paul, the afflictions that were necessary to bring the Colossians to maturity.

The third phrase noted earlier, "in accord with the administration of God, which is granted to me for you,..." describes the shape Paul's sufferings must take. The beginning of a new administration required several adjustments. First, the old administration must be dissolved. Sin was reigning, and the strong-armed executive branch of its government was law. The law was fulfilled by Christ and set aside, leaving sin powerless, and making provision for grace to take power and ascend the throne of administrational dominion. Yet something else was mandatory in the setting aside of the law. Since the prominence of Israel over the nations was based on a covenant of law, that prominence must also be set aside, the law having fully prepared for the reign of grace. The character of grace is too broad to be confined to a single nation. In addition, the subjects and citizens of the realm must be educated as to the ways and means of the new administration. Paul was commissioned as the chief herald. As the former administration focused on a prominent group, so also, the present administration focuses on a prominent group, the ecclesia. Certain miraculous, identifying occurrences initiated the rule of law and the prominence of Israel which corresponded with the character of that administration. And, in accord with an administration in grace, the ecclesia was established and identified by the extraordinary sufferings of Paul, and the continual sufferings of the called-out-ones. Sufferings are a keynote of grace, because only in sufferings is the sufficiency of grace made known (2 Cor.12:9), and the power seen to be all of God (2 Cor.4:7).

The struggles and sufferings Paul underwent in bringing the Colossians to maturity primarily emanated from the conflict of the old administration with the new. The old, under law, was rooted in the flesh. The philosophy, traditions, elements of the world, ceremonies, holy days, diets and the like, which Paul warned about are all things of the flesh. The law was never endowed with the power to bring humanity to maturity. Only in an administration of grace and in spirit can we be circumcised in the death of Christ, baptized into His tomb and raised to life through His faith in the operation of God (Col.2:10-15). And it is the realization of these things that brings maturity. Law can accomplish none of this through human flesh. Maturity, like salvation, is truly a gracious gift, yet God has designed that those who grow into it travel a difficult road as the means of obtaining it.

© J. Philip Scranton
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