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He was sick to the point of death, but God spared him (Philippians 2:27).
So Paul tells the church in Philippi to honor Epaphroditus when he comes back (v. 29), and he explains his reason with words very similar to Colossians 1:24. He says, “He nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete
-antanaplere, a similar word to the one in Colossians 1:24] what was lacking [ta husteremata, same words as in Colossians 1:24] in your service to me.” In the Greek original, the phrase “complete what is lacking in your service to me” is almost identical with “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” In what sense, then, was the service of the Philippians to Paul “lacking,” SU F F E R I N G and in what sense did Epaphroditus “fill up” what was lacking in their service? A
hundred years ago commentator Marvin Vincent explained it like this:
The gift to Paul was a gift of the church as a body. It was a sacrificial offering of love. What was lacking, and what would have been grateful to Paul and to the church alike, was the church’s presentation of this offering in person. This was impossible, and Paul represents Epaphroditus as supplying this lack by his affectionate and zealous ministry.6 I think that is exactly what the same words mean in Colossians 1:24. Christ has prepared a love offering for the world by suffering and dying for sinners. It is full and lacking in nothing—except one thing, a personal presentation by Christ Himself to the nations of the world. God’s answer to this lack is to call the people of Christ (people like Paul) to make a personal presentation of the afflictions of Christ to the world.
In doing this, we “fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” We finish what they were designed for, namely, a personal presentation to the people who do not know about their infinite worth.
FILLING AFFLICTIONS AFFLICTIONSWITH But the most amazing thing about Colossians 1:24 is how Paul fills up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. He says that it is his own sufferings that fill up Christ’s afflictions. “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” This means, then, that Paul exhibits the sufferings of Christ by suffering himself for those he is trying to win.
In his sufferings they see Christ’s sufferings. Here is the astounding upshot: God intends for the afflictions of Christ to be presented to the world through the afflictions of His people. God really means for the body of Christ, the church, to experience some of the suffering He experienced so that when we proclaim the Cross as the
6. Marvin Vincent, Epistle to the Philippians and to Philemon, I. C. C. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1897), 78.
way to life, people will see the marks of the Cross in us and feel the love of the Cross from us. Our calling is to make the afflictions of Christ real for people by the afflictions we experience in bringing them the message of salvation.
Since Christ is no longer on the earth, He wants His body, the church, to reveal His suffering in its suffering. Since we are His body, our sufferings are His sufferings. Romanian pastor Josef Tson put it like this: “I am an extension of Jesus Christ. When I was beaten in Romania, He suffered in my body. It is not my suffering: I only had the honor to share His sufferings.”7 Therefore, our sufferings testify to the kind of love Christ has for the world.
[We are] always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Corinthians 4:10–12) “THE BLOOD MARTYRS IS SEED” OF THE The history of the expansion of Christianity has proved that “the blood of the martyrs is seed”8—the seed of new life in Christ spreading through the world.
For almost three hundred years, Christianity grew in soil that was wet with the blood of the martyrs. In his History of Christian Missions, Stephen Neil mentions the sufferings of the early Christians as one of the six main reasons the church
grew so rapidly:
7. Josef Tson, “A Theology of Maryrdom,” an undated booklet of the Romanian Missionary Society, 1415 Hill Avenue, Wheaton, IL 60187, p. 4.
8. Tertullian, Apologeticus, c. 50.
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Because of their dangerous situation vis-á-vis the law, Christians were almost bound to meet in secret.… Every Christian knew that sooner or later he might have to testify to his faith at the cost of his life.… When persecution did break out, martyrdom could be attended by the utmost possible publicity. The Roman public was hard and cruel, but it was not altogether without compassion; and there is no doubt that the attitude of the martyrs, and particularly of the young women who suffered along with the men, made a deep impression.… In the earlier records what we find is calm, dignified, decorous behaviour; cool courage in the face of torment, courtesy towards enemies, and a joyful acceptance of suffering as the way appointed by the Lord to lead to his heavenly kingdom.
There are a number of well-authenticated cases of conversion of pagans in the very moment of witnessing the condemnation and death of Christians; there must have been far more who received impressions that in the course of time would be turned into a living faith.9 “HOW CAN I BLASPHEME MY KING WHO SAVED ME?” One example of such a powerful witness through suffering was the martyrdom of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna who died in A.D. 155. His student Irenaeus said that Polycarp had been a student of the apostle John. We know he was very old when he died because when the proconsul commanded him to recant and curse Christ, he said, “Eighty and six years have I served him and he hath done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?”10 During one season of persecution, a frenzied crowd in Smyrna cried out for a search to be made for Polycarp. He had moved to a town just outside the city, and three days before his death he had a dream from which he concluded, “I must needs be burned alive.” So when the search was finally made, instead of
fleeing, he said, “The will of God be done.” The ancient account of the martyrdom gives the following record:
9. Stephen Neil, A History of Christian Missions (Harmondworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1964), 43–4.
10. Quoted in “The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” in Documents of the Christian Church, ed. Henry Bettenson (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 10.
So, hearing of their arrival, he came down and talked with them, while all that were present marveled at his age and constancy, and that there was so much ado about the arrest of such an old man. Then he ordered that something should be served for them to eat and drink, at that late hour, as much as they wanted. And he besought them that they should grant him an hour that he might pray freely. They gave him leave, and he stood and prayed, being so filled with the grace of God that for two hours he could not hold his peace, while they that heard him were amazed, and the men repented that they had come after so venerable an old man.11 When he was finally taken away and condemned to be burned, they tried to nail his hands to the stake, but he pled against it and said, “Let me be as I am.
He that granted me to endure the fire will grant me also to remain at the pyre unmoved without being secured with nails.”12 When his body seemed not to be consumed by the fire, an executioner drove a dagger into his body. The ancient account concludes: “All the multitude marveled at the great difference between the unbelievers and the elect.”13 In large measure, this is what explains the triumph of Christianity in the early centuries. They triumphed by their suffering.
It did not just accompany their witness; it was the capstone of their witness.
“They have conquered [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Revelation 12:11).
NOT TILL NUMBER MARTYRS IS COMPLETETHE OF It is not a fluke of history that the church expands and is strengthened by suffering and martyrdom. This is the way God means it to be. One of the most powerful evidences that God intends to complete His saving purposes in the world by means of suffering is found in the book of Revelation. The setting is a vision of heaven where the souls of the martyrs cry out, “How long, O Lord?” In other words, when will history be complete and Your purposes of salvation
11. Ibid., 9–10.
12. Ibid., 11.
13. Ibid., 12.
and judgment be accomplished? The answer is ominous for all of us who want to be a part of the completion of the great commission: “They were…told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been” (Revelation 6:11).
What this means is that God has planned to complete His purposes by appointing a certain number of martyrs. When that number is complete, then the end will come. George Otis Jr.
shocked many at the second Lausanne Congress of World Evangelization in Manila in 1989 when he asked, “Is our failure to thrive in Muslim countries owing to the absence of martyrs? Can a covert church grow in strength? Does a young church need martyr models?” Fittingly, he concludes his book The Last of the Giants with a chapter titled “Risky Safety.” In it he writes:
Should the Church in politically or socially trying circumstances remain covert to avoid potential eradication by forces hostile to Christianity? Or would more open confrontation with prevailing spiritual ignorance and deprivation—even if it produced Christian martyrs—be more likely to lead to evangelistic breakthroughs? Islamic fundamentalists claim that their spiritual revolution is fueled by the blood of martyrs. Is it conceivable that Christianity’s failure to thrive in the Muslim world is due to the notable absence of Christian martyrs?
And can the Muslim community take seriously the claims of a Church in hiding?... The question is not whether it is wise at times to keep worship and witness discreet, but rather how long this may continue before we are guilty of “hiding our light under a bushel.… The record shows that from Jerusalem and Damascus to Ephesus and Rome, the apostles were beaten, stoned, conspired against and imprisoned for their witness. Invitations were rare, and never the basis for their missions.”14
14. George Otis Jr., The Last of the Giants: Lifting the Veil on Islam and the End Times (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Chosen, 1991), 261, 263.
Otis would no doubt agree with Gregory the Great (pope from 590 to 604), when he said, “The death of the martyrs blossoms in the lives of the faithful.”15
THE BLOOD FLOWED FROM
OUR WOUNDS LIKE A FOUNTAINThere are countless examples in our own day of choosing to suffer for the purpose of Colossians 1:24—to fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions by presenting them to others through suffering.16 In late 1995, as I was working on the second edition of this book, a missionary letter describing such suffering came to my attention. I quickly e-mailed the missionary in Africa to confirm
the facts. He spoke personally with Dansa, the man in question, and got his permission for me to quote this story in Dansa’s words from the letter:
Around 1980 there was a time of severe persecution from the local officials of the communist government in my area of Wolayta. At the time, I was working in a government office, but I was also serving as the leader of the Christian youth association for all the churches in my area. The communist officials repeatedly came to me to ask for my help in teaching the doctrines of the revolution among the youth. Many other Christians were giving in because the pressure was very great, but I could only say no.
At first, their approach was positive: they offered me promotions and pay increases. But then the imprisonments began. The first two were fairly short. The third time lasted an entire year. During this time communist cadres would regularly come to brainwash the nine of us believers (six men and three women—one of whom would later become my wife) who were being held together. But when one of the cadres converted to Christ, we were beaten and forced to haul water
15. Quoted in Tson, “A Theology of Martyrdom,” 1.
16. See the examples in John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions, 2nd ed., revised and expanded (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2003), chapter 3. See almost any of the books by Richard Wurmbrand; for example, Tortured for Christ or If that Were Christ, Would You Give Him Your Blanket? or Victorious Faith. Other sources include Called to Suffer, Called to Triumph by Herbert Schlossberg and God Reigns in China by Leslie Lyall.
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from long distances and carry heavy stones to clear farm land.
The worst time came during a two-week period in which the prison official would wake us early while it was still dark when no one would see and force us to walk on our bare knees over a distance up to 1 1/2 kilometers on the gravel road of the town. It would take us about three hours. After the first day, the blood flowed from our wounds like a fountain, but we felt nothing.