Difficult Vocations

Difficult Vocations

Study #10 Colossians 1:24
by Bob Burridge ©2021

Imagine the Apostle Paul reading this Jerusalem employment want-ad back when he was a great Jewish Rabbi: “Job Offer; full-time work, no time off, no retirement. The job includes violent ejection from several cities which will include being stoned and dragged out of one city presumably dead. There’s little pay but much ridicule, slander, and rejection by powerful religious leaders. You will be falsely accused of crimes against the state, held in prisons, be in a ship-wreck at sea, and be bitten by a poisonous snake. However you will be able to write letters to friends during your time in jail.” That’s not a very attractive job description. But that’s exactly the job the Lord called him to.

Later in his life in 2 Corinthians 6:4-5, Paul gave his own description of what he and other believers must often endure when working together for the cause of Christ. As servants of God they had “great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger;” Then he added that we would be dishonored, be the subject of evil reports, called deceivers, punished, made sorrowful, poor and having nothing – yet he then added in verse 10, “yet possessing everything”.

I’m sure most of us have had some pretty horrible jobs along the way. I doubt any of us had to endure hardships anything like those Paul had to go through.

I remember my first job scrubbing out frozen food shelves in a grocery store. Then I sold shoes, fried hamburgers, and worked in the hot summer in a factory without air-conditioning. I loaded trucks, and worked for several years in a commercial laundry where handled corrosive chemicals that ate holes in my clothes and shoes, and often burned my hands. But, I was working my way through college and had to pay my bills.

Why do we take jobs like these? It’s because we need to deal with something bigger than the difficulties. We do them because there are benefits that out-weigh the negatives, so we put up with difficult vocations.

Paul’s apostolic work, though harder than all these jobs we take on, had its rewards too. He was able to serve the Savior who had transformed his life and paid for his sins.

In his letters Paul says a lot about the benefits we receive by God’s grace. We undeserving and corrupted descendants of Adam are redeemed by the cross of Christ, reconciled with God, and given spiritual life. Paul also makes it clear that he is humbly thankful for his special calling to the gospel ministry.

But this letter to the Colossians came from prison in Rome! Paul had been accused of a crime he didn’t commit; thrown into jail without evidence or a guilty verdict; held illegally by cowardly politicians; was shipwrecked at sea; bitten by a poisonous snake; and now he was awaiting trial in the court of Nero, the Emperor of Rome. How could a person find peace and joy when so many things seemed to be going wrong?

Here the Apostle tells us about the motive
that drove him on in his work …

Colossians 1:24. 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,

The particular suffering Paul referred to here included his imprisonment. But his persecution didn’t originate with Rome at this point. It was from the Jewish leaders. They hated him because he used God’s word alone as the test for truth. Just as Jesus did. And he taught that the writings of Moses, David, Isaiah and other prophets clearly identified Jesus as the Messiah who would put an end to the sacrifices and temple.

So when Paul was so successful in bringing this gospel not only the Jews but to the Gentiles too, he was put in Jail. First in Jerusalem, then in Caesarea, and finally at Rome. Those who valued the teachings of the Rabbis over the written word of God persecuted all those who accepted the Gentiles in God’s church. But a prime target of their hatred was Paul, God’s Apostle to the Gentiles, and a former Rabbi.

He already had a good career before God’s call to become an ambassador of Christ. He was a respected and powerful Rabbi, trained by the famous Gamaliel. He could have settled into a quiet but secure career as a tent-maker. (We see that he was quite skilled in this when he worked with Aquila and Priscilla.) There would have been no hardships, no jail, no hatred — but no joy in serving Christ. So he followed his conscience and convictions. He took up his difficult vocation.

His suffering was for the Colossians. “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake”
The Greek text here can be correctly taken in two ways: “in the suffering of me (“on behalf of” or “for the sake of”) you” (ἐν τοῖς παθήμασί μου ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν ) The wording could mean that he suffered “because of them” or “for their benefit”.

Taken the one way: he suffered because the Colossian church included Gentile believers. Paul’s approval of that angered the Rabbinic Jews. They wanted to kill him, but settled for having him arrested. In that sense, he was suffering in a Roman jail because of these Gentile believers in the Colossian church.
Taken the other way: the Colossian church benefited from Paul’s suffering. They were hated for including Gentiles in their spiritual family. But if the Rabbi’s hatred was focused on Paul, the Colossians were spared. He suffered in their place. Also, by his testimony in Rome many Christian lives were touched, and strengthened by this letter he sent from there.

Of course, both ideas are true. Paul’s suffering was on account of their mixed church, and for their benefit.

Later in his life, Paul was again in Roman prison. That time he was being persecuted directly by Rome and expected to be put to death for his Christian faith. But with that same sense of priority, he knew there was a greater benefit worth his suffering. He wrote in 2 Timothy 2:10, saying “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.”

Paul reminded them that the church for which he suffered is the body of Christ. Those who persecute the church strike out at a much greater target than they realize. When one of us is persecuted, we all are under attack as Christ’s body. In 1 Corinthians 12:12&26 Paul made this very clear …
12:12, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”
12:26, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”
The head of the church, Jesus Christ, is part of that body too. When he’s hated, all who love him and obey him are seen as enemies too. And when people dare harm the children of God, they attack the Lord of lords. In Acts 9:3-4 Jesus said that Paul before his conversion was attacking him when attacking the church. He said …
3 Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.
4 And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
In this way Paul and all Christians when they suffer, are united in the suffering of Christ.

Here Paul says something that could be confused if isolated from the rest of the letter. The ESV and the NASB translate this as “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”. The KJV says “fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ”, which is a little better.The most literal reading of the Greek would be: “I am filling up what remains of Christ’s suffering.”

Certainly he didn’t mean that there was anything lacking in Christ’s atonement. The death of Christ to save his people was complete in itself. Nothing needed to be added to it, nor could more done, for it to become effective. Jesus did all that was necessary both to pay for the guilt of our sins, and to restore every believer to full fellowship with God. On the cross in John 19:30 Jesus said, “it is finished”. Hebrews 10:14 says, “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” The work of Jesus was a full and sufficient salvation in and of itself.

One of the confusions that entered the church in the middle ages was that Paul and the other apostles and saints were so good that they added to what Christ accomplished. They imagined that these extra good works were kept in a store house as a treasure, and that the church could dispense them to sinners as needed. The church offered these treasures to their uninformed and superstitious followers at a price. They sold them as indulgences that made the church rich, and sin became affordable. This was one of the outrages that brought about the Protestant Reformation.

Nothing could be further from the truth of this passage. Paul had no thought that his sufferings added to that work of his Savior. He wrote in Galatians 6:14, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

How were Paul’s hardships completing the sufferings of Christ for the church?
There was much suffering ahead to be endured by the church as the body of Christ …
1. There still remains in the hearts of evil men the hatred that caused Christ’s suffering. There’s an on-going animosity toward God, which has continued since the time of the fall. It struck out against the ancient prophets, and against our Savior on the cross. But that wickedness didn’t satisfy itself there. It continues to strike out at God and at his family in the church. The suffering Paul endured continued because of their hatres of Jesus.

2. The church grows as it struggles together for Christ. When the church saw their beloved Apostles suffer for their Lord, they became more bold. They saw an example of the peace and comfort they should expect too, when their love for the Savior makes them willing to endure the rage of man. No missionary on a hostile frontier, no child being bullied for his faith in school, no worker discriminated against in a factory or business, no brother or sister in the Lord — ever really suffers alone. We need to stand together in such times, and not just be glad it’s not us. When Paul suffered, he held out proof that the suffering of Jesus was to make us strong. He filled up that part of the work of Christ. He held it up for others to see.

3. Many learned about the wonder of the gospel when they saw Paul endure his sufferings. They became aware of it by the Apostle’s imprisonment. His testimony in Rome, and to others believers who read his letters, demonstrated all the more that the Gospel changes lives and brings comfort in hard times. It highlighted the message of Christ, even bringing the gospel into Roman households.

Summarizing all this so well in Philppians 1:12-14 Paul himself explains, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.

The results of his suffering showed why he endured it. There is more power in the original Greek expression than in our translations of it. It’s not just “now I rejoice in my sufferings”. It’s one of those on-going tense verbs in Greek, “Now I am rejoicing”. This was a continuing benefit deep in his soul.

In Matthew 5:11-12 Jesus said this would happen when we are reviled in upholding the glory of God. He said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Back when the disciples begged Paul not to go to Jerusalem and face arrest, he answered in Acts 21:13 saying, “Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” After the Apostles were beaten and threatened by the High Priests in Jerusalem it says in Acts 5:41, “Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.”

There are countless examples all through the Bible and the history of the true church. God’s people have taken brave stands for the Gospel, and had no regrets though they suffered.

But what was the benefit that carried them through? What was it that brought greater joy than all the agony of their difficult vocations? It wasn’t for outward self benefits. They weren’t getting rich. They didn’t live in luxury. They didn’t get the best houses in the best neighborhoods, or own the best chariots. Things like that never brought real lasting joy to anyone. Many who have the best of them have been among the most miserable of our world.
It was for the glory of Christ, and for the benefit of brothers and sisters in the church.

It was to be honored that the same anger that struck out at the prophets and our Lord was dealt out to them as God’s privileged children. Paul had no regrets for what he had gone through … he rejoiced in it.

Puritan author John Daille wrote: “He that follows his captain weeping is but a poor soldier; men of valour, on such occasions, go forward with gladness.” The soldier who pays no attention to the cause that calls him to risk his life, will be the coward that runs in the face of challenge. He betrays his nation to the enemy for the sake of this worlds comforts.

The gladness of the Christian is not a life of ease at the expense of God’s honor. When he’s ready to give up the things that lure us into the counterfeit joy of a lost world, and to endure even its anger and ridicule, he will understand the absolute wonder of a heart blessed in hardship for Christ.

How does God call us to suffer for the sake of others in the church today?
We may not be arrested or accused of crimes for preaching Christ.
But we may be labeled or stigmatized. We may be overlooked for honors or friendships.
We may miss out on special activities or special opportunities.
The world might make us feel deprived if for the sake of being in worship on the Sabbath
we miss a good TV show, or some sports event, or we miss out on sales, and special events.
Or if for the sake of our duties to our home and children we miss out on some times of leisure or self indulgence.

Sometimes our dedication to Christ, the priorities of our families and neighbors can be difficult vocations. But what will make our daily work, our weekly worship, our ready testimony to Christ seem worth all the agony and self denial that such things might bring? We need to keep before us the greater good in the glory of God, and in the responsible fulfilling of the duties he gives us.

Worship and obedience are a chore to the hypocrite, but they’re greatest joy to God’s child, and the best provision for our children. It’s a deception to think we will better find security and joy in the world’s ways and promises.

There is an on-going joy in enduring the afflictions of the gospel. 2 Timothy 1:8, “Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God,” Paul wrote about that great consolation in suffering in 2 Corinthians 1:6-7, “If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.”

Paul had a sense of duty even if it meant suffering in a difficult vocation. When we share that sense of duty and promise we too will be filled with a continuing inner peace and joy as a part of God’s expanding kingdom and as partakers of that joy forever.

Note: Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

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