Got a question on Voices about Colossians 1:24 and decided to write a treatment of it through my text for this week’s sermon, Luke 18:31-34.
Luke 18:31-34 (NRSV)
Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.” But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.
What does that have to do with Col 1:24? I think a lot.
The letter starts out in a typical way for Paul, lots of prayer and thanksgiving and praise. That’s important because it reveals how the Christian life flows from gratitude more than admonition and duty (contra moralism which banks on carrots and sticks to get people to comply). This of course is the central rubric of the Heidelberg Catechism: Misery, Deliverance, Gratitude.
The key to understanding 1:24 is of course the context and what a context it is! The song that begins in 1:15 and goes through 1:20 is one of the most beautiful in scripture. It’s worth spending some time figuring out what that song is about and why it is structured the way it is. It is clearly a song about Creation 1.0 and Creation 2.0. It speaks of Jesus as the ikon of the invisible God, he himself the author of Creation 1.0, even the spiritual forces that govern it. “in him all things hold together.”
In verse 18 we shift to creation 2.0, he is the “firstborn from the dead”, Apparently Creation 2.0 is being born out of death in creation 1.0. CS Lewis rightly notes that nothing can arise that has not first died. Paul makes this point in other places. What’s more, the rebellion of Creation 1.0 is intimated here as is the defeat of that rebellion. The rightful supremacy of the author of creation 1.0 is re-established by the very flesh of the body of Jesus in the resurrection. What’s more the insurrection is put down not by the use of the sword (the only power that those of us fully immersed in the age of decay imagine “works”) but rather by his voluntary sacrifice on behalf of the guilty. He’s full embrace of the life of the age to come, the relational polarity of the age to come “your wellbeing at my expense” (also sometimes called ‘grace’) in the midst of the age of decay that earns him this supremacy in full view of all of the powers of creation (see Phil 2:5-11). He makes peace through the blood of the cross.
In Col 1:21-23 he contextualizes this for his Colossian audience. Jesus accomplishes this in his fleshly body through death. We could spend a lot of time here but I’ll press on.
Paul speaks as he does in 1:24 on other occasions as well, but not in exactly the same way. See Romans 5:3 Romans 8:18 2 Corinthians 4:7-18, 2 Cor 7:4.
It’s clear for Paul that the sufferings we endure are not only for our benefit, but also for the benefit of the broader body. Jesus’ sufferings were in one sense not like ours (destroying grip and the claim of the powers and principalities upon us) but our sufferings can be like his if they are part of the cruciform path behind him. How else can we understand his admonition that we “take up our cross and follow him”. Certainly this doesn’t mean that we are earning or securing something, but we are indeed participating in what he has done as the firstborn from the dead who reconciles all things to himself whether on heaven or earth and taking first place in everything.
What Paul’s sufferings do is bring specific application of Christ’s sufferings for and to the church. The emphasis isn’t on the inadequacy of the sufferings of Jesus but rather the completion of the work of the sufferings of Jesus as the rest of the body of Christ follows him in his journey of reconciliation and renewal of all things.
How is this done? It is done by walking behind Jesus, doing what he says, believing him, and living the way he lives. Again, I’ll draw my scheme to you of the two ages and what I call the relational polarity of each age.
First there is the age of decay in which we live. The creation is not evil (contra Greek dualism or implicit Gnosticism), it is subject to frustration and decay (Romans 8). The relational polarity (how one relates to the other) is lived out “my wellbeing at your expense”. This is the power of the sword. Everything in the age of decay is energized by this polarity.
CS Lewis calls the life of Jesus the life of God, the image (ikon) of the invisible God. That relational polarity is opposite the first one: “your wellbeing at my expense”. We see this all the time in Jesus’ admonitions: turn the other cheek, give to those who ask, sell all you have and give to the poor (the previous story from my Luke text), deny yourself, etc. God does this and he does it most dramatically and clearly in Jesus himself.
Jesus regularly exhorts his follows to live the way of the age to come (the kingdom of God, eternal life) even while they are located in the age of decay. This kind of living is exactly what Jesus does and this kind of living is what energizes Jesus in his journey to Jerusalem. He fully discloses to his disciples what will happen (“the third time” in Luke 18:31-34) and makes the bold claim that all of these gory sufferings he accurately predicts will lead to its intended outcome, resurrection. This of course makes no sense to those of us who live in the age of decay and have been thoroughly shaped by it. It is lunacy, stupidity, non-sense. But Jesus is the revelation of this very open “secret”.
In Colossians 1:24 Paul is simply shining the light on this in the context of his witness and ministry to the church. Jesus did this fully before the eyes of his witnesses who only see it AFTER they see the suffering. Read Luke 24. You can see it in the whole Road to Emmaus story, and the following story, most clearly noted in 24:45.
Jesus is the key to understanding Israel’s history. Israel couldn’t understand her apparent defeat and subjugation by the Gentiles and were looking for their Messiah to free them. Jesus did, but not in the way they imagined. In fact Jesus shows that Jesus’ story is Israel’s story, and Paul shows that the Colossians themselves enter into this story as well. Paul’s sufferings on display before them for their sake help them see Jesus’ sufferings and help them also see the way of the path from our bondage within the age of decay into the age to come. The path will always be cruciform but will give birth to Creation 2.0.
We Americans imagine that “witness” to Jesus is some attractive person telling lots of great stories about how Jesus “works” to make their life the kind of life that Americans think they always want. I don’t see it. The stories that in fact draw us to him powerfully enough are those stories of suffering where one freely gives their life for their friend. Think of Les Miserables, Tale of Two Cities, and on and on we go. Think of the kind of quiet, faithful, painful, life robbing sufferings freely embraced out of love for another. Every mother can be this, as can every father and many do. Faithful Christians who labor out of love, freely, not out of compulsion for the benefit of others. “Your wellbeing at my expense.” In the midst of the age of decay this will inevitably cost them everything, but Jesus (and Paul and all who follow afterwards) show that in fact they lose what they cannot keep so that they can keep what they cannot lose. It’s well worth it says Paul.
Col 1:24 sounds strange, but it’s just another exposition of the Christian life. Like the disciples who just don’t get it in Luke 18:34 it seems to make no sense, but in the light of the cross, the empty tomb, and the broken resurrected body of our Lord, it can make all the sense in the world. pvk