Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Colossians 1: What Is Lacking in Christ's Afflictions?

I want to write today about a New Testament passage that makes some theologians and Biblical scholars very nervous: Colossians 1:24.

Colossians is one of the "deutero-Pauline" letters. These letters are purportedly written by Paul, Christianity's first great missionary and theologian; however, a majority of modern scholars argue that because of notable linguistic, stylistic, and theological differences, it is more likely that they were composed by followers of Paul in his name. (Ephesians and 2 Thessalonians are the other deutero-Paulines.)

In Colossians, "Paul" (and I'll drop the quotes from here on out) is writing from captivity in Rome to a new church in the city of Colossae--located in what would now be Turkey. In one of the letter's movements, he describes to the Colossians the pain of imprisonment--but with a positive cast: "I am rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church" (1:24).

Though it seems masochistic to some, the notion that sufferings are an occasion for "rejoicing" is nothing new--in Pauline literature or the gospels. Both Jesus and Paul argue that suffering, and especially suffering for Christ, is a blessed trial.

What is surprising is Paul's suggestion that his sufferings complete "what is lacking in Christ's afflictions." This is striking language, for what could be "lacking" in Jesus's sufferings, described elsewhere as the ideal vehicle for forgiveness? How can Paul characterize the afflictions of Jesus as anything less than perfect?

The editors of my Oxford Bible beat a hasty retreat in their footnote to this verse: "not a denigration of Christ's death, but a reflection of the apocalyptic belief that God's people must suffer before the culmination of history." Okay, but this smacks more of hasty assertion than reasoned argument.

Even worse, the makers of the Bible's King James Version totally drop the ball with 1:24, delivering a mangled, barely readable translation: "Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake, which is the church." They say that Shakespeare may have helped out with the King James Bible; if he had anything to do with this verse, I'm glad he mainly stuck to plays.

And neither the Oxford editors nor the KJV translators can get away from the Greek original, which clearly uses the word husterema to describe Christ's pains. Husterema has only negative connotations in most Greek dictionaries: lack, destitution, poverty, deficiency, want. And many orthodox readers want to keep any such words away from Jesus's sacrifice.

But for the moment, I'd like to embrace this notion of lack--not to "denigrate" the atoning sacrifice of Jesus or to suggest, heretically, that his death means less than it should. By contrast, I want to emphasize the other side of the formula. If Christ's afflictions are "lacking," then our sufferings must make up the difference.

In making this bold statement, Paul greatly re-values human suffering--and perhaps, human action. Elsewhere, Paul suggests that human suffering is not worthless because it mimics or mirrors Christ's. If Jesus suffers, our suffering then is ennobled.

In Colossians, Paul steps further, arguing that our affliction not only resembles Christ's; it fulfills or completes it. The Greek is antanapleroo--"to fill up." Thus, Colossians renders human suffering not only noble, but necessary.

Again, some orthodox scholars may run from 1:24. Me? I embrace it.

1 comment:

  1. " Paul greatly re-values human suffering--and perhaps, human action" - I believe this is true and Ephesians 3: 9 & 10 also showing how God use us in big ways.
    "majority of modern scholars argue that because of notable linguistic, stylistic, and theological differences, it is more likely that they were composed by followers of Paul in his name" - what would they want to take out next? Sounds like some one wants their ears tickled.
    To me it seems like many people's concept of "God" is He must micro manage everything and we can't have influnce or it would take away from God's plan which would diminish who God is. My concept of God is - it does not matter how much I (or all of us for that matter) go against His will or plan it won't problem.
    Thank you for your article
    Blessings, Tim

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