What does it mean to fill up the afflication of Christ?
In his Epistle to the Colossians, Paul writes that he:
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, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.
Included is the curious phrase that something is “lacking” in Christ’s afflictions. Some have taken this to mean that Christ’s death was insufficient in affecting a salvific atonement for sins; others have simply ignored the phrase due to the challenge it presents to Protestant theology. As Christians, trained by the Spirit, guided under the traditions of the Church, we have no reason to fear what the Bible says. The Spirit does not waste his words, so we should be careful to study and reason them all out.
Before suggesting that the word does not connote “lack”, a word study of “hysteremata” shows the word in this verse, 2 Corinthians 9:12, and I Thessalonians 3:10. All of the uses by Paul suggest an incompleteness.
If Christ’s death was a sufficient sacrifice, how can Paul still speak of “lack” or want in his afflictions?
It’s because Christ’s were sufficient, but we were called to partake in them.
Paul places himself in the ministry of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah’s Song (Isaiah 52:12-53). Isaiah sings about a servant of Yahweh who will come, be regarded as cursed, will be destroyed, but will rise again to see his offspring. The Evangelists attach this song to Christ, but Paul sees himself as an extension of Christ’s body through the Spirit. This is because Paul sees that everybody who professes faith in Christ has been crucified with Christ, being baptized into his death and raised into his new, indestructible life by the Spirit. Paul’s ministry is like that of the Servant in that he will call people who have never heard (Romans 15:20-21). His call narrative is shaped by the servant (Galatians 1:15-16). (For more, I suggest this paper, but do not wholly endorse its views).
More than that, Paul claims that he suffered mightily for the Church (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:16-33; Acts 20-28). Paul, as the firstfruits of the harvest (cf. I Timothy 1:15), was the protoypical sufferer of Christians. His sufferings were modeled on the persecution of Christ, and his served as example for those behind him.
St. Clement of Rome writes about the Christians who suffered after the example of Paul and Christ. He writes about Nero, who blamed a great fire in Rome on the Christian population. They “suffered through many indignities and tortures” and “cruel and unholy insults”. (Gundry, The Beast of Revelation, 51)
But by no human contrivance, whether lavish descriptions of money or of offerings to appease the gods, could Nero rid himself of the ugly rumor that the fire was due to his orders. So, to dispel the report, he substituted as the guilty persons and inflicted unheard of punishments on those who, detested for their abominable crimes, were vulgarly called Christians. […]
So those who first confessed were hurried to trial, and then, on their showing, an immense number were involved in the same fate, not so much on the charge of incendiaries as from a hatred of the human race. And their death was aggravated with mockeries, insomuch that, wrapped in the hides of wild beasts, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or fastened to crosses to be set on fire, that when the darkness fell they burned to illuminate the night. Nero had offered his own gardens to the spectacle […] a sense of pity was aroused by the feeling that they were sacrificed not on the altar of public interest, but to satisfy the cruelty of one man.
Interesting, then, that those who confessed Christ became martyrs in such significant ways. Gundry believes that the Antichrist was Nero, who brought persecution to the Church and blasphemed the saints. Notice: the Christians were substituted for the guilty party to take the blame for the sin and atone for the sinner. They were counted among the unrighteous. They were brough to mock trials with bogus, trumped up charges. They were mocked on the crosses and eaten by dogs (cf. Psalm 22). They were covered in the hides of beasts, a false atonement covering. They were lit with the fire of the anti-Spirit. In burning, they arose to God as incense offerings, heaping Rome’s sins up to heaven. Not only that, they were killed in the garden of the king just as Christ was killed on the Mount of Olives, the new Holy of Holies. The passage is ripe with sacrificial language.
This is how Paul and Christians fill up what is lacking in the suffering of Christ: by dying in a way similar to his. They pick up his cross, and in being made in the image of God, they are being shaped into the image of the Lamb slain before time began. They are killed, and suffer, as witnesses/martyrs to the death and resurrection of Jesus, filling up the lacking afflictions by being living testaments to the gospel of Christ.
In this, they overcome the dragon by the blood of the Lamb and the words of their testimony.