In an article some years ago in the Tyndale Bulletin , Andrew Perriman argues that Paul’s statement in Colossians 1:24 about “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” does not refer to eschatological “Messianic woes” nor to an inadequacy in Christ’s personal sufferings that Paul has to complete. Rather, what is lacking is the fullness of Christ’s afflictions in Paul’s own personal experience. The gap is not between what Christ has suffered in Himself and what Christ suffers with Paul’s help, but rather between “those ‘afflictions of Christ’ which he has already suffered and those which he expects or even hopes to suffer.” In short, “it is his own experience of the afflictions of Christ that is incomplete.”
Perriman thinks that this has a very specific meaning. Christ’s afflictions were fulfilled in His death; Paul has suffered as Christ did, but he has not yet suffered death on behalf of the churches. Therefore, he has not yet filled out the full extent of Christ’s sufferings in his own ministry. But he is willing to, almost expecting to, complete those sufferings in martyrdom.
One of the implications of this interpretation is that Paul “considered his sufferings to be defined by Christ’s sufferings.” His sufferings were not his own, but they, like everything else about Paul, belonged to Jesus. Commenting on Philippians 3, Perriman elaborates:
Paul’s sufferings “brought benefit to the church because, on the one hand, they were a product of his apostolic ministry and concern, and on the other, because from affliction sprang comfort in Christ (2 Cor.l:4-7). He looked upon the possibility of dying not as a martyrdom, as death for its own sake, but as a fulfilment of the pattern of Christ’s suffering and, especially if we allow the implications of our interpretation of Philippians 3:11 to run through to verse 14, as the means to attain the prize of resurrection.”
Perriman’s suggestion is helpful. It makes sense of Paul’s language, valorizes Paul’s sufferings as imitations of Christ’s sufferings, but without speculation about Paul’s notions of “somatic or mystical participation” and without undermining the New Testament’s consistent affirmation that the death of Christ is sufficient as an atonement.
Still, there seems to be grounds in the New Testament for thinking of the sufferings of Christians, perhaps uniquely Christians of the apostolic age, as participating in and filling out Christ’s sufferings, or at least of extending the effects of Christ’s suffering. In a recent post, I noted the fact that the church, and the Spirit, begin to spread from Jerusalem after the death of Stephen. Jesus brings an end to the “elementary principles,” Paul says, but in Revelation it’s the blood of the saints that makes the harlot so drunk that she falls over forever. Changing the imagery, we can point to the fact that Jesus is the cornerstone of the temple, but that there are other foundational stones to the house of God (Ephesians 2; Revelation 21). Christ is in a sense the sole foundation (1 Corinthians 3:11), yet at the same time other passages show that some believers share this “foundational” place with Him.