What do the sufferings of Christ have in common with the creation and with God’s love?
God did not finish His creation … that was the humans’ job. God’s love is not completed … that is the human’s job.
Here’s a third parallel observation. Not only was the creation perfect but not complete, and God’s love perfect but not complete, the scripture says the same thing about Christ’s sufferings.
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, (Col 1:24 ESV).
I find this one of the most intriguing statements in the New Testament. We normally think of Christ’s atoning death to be perfect, not only in the sense of flawless but also in the sense of completeness. Did he not cry out from that place of torture those three words of powerful reassurance, “It is finished”? Is it not a tenet of sound reformation theology that Christ fully accomplished the salvation of His elect and nothing can be added to that? (See John 6:37-40; Acts 20:28) Yes, and yes.
By His death, Christ took away the sin of the world (John 1:29; Col. 2:13-14) and satisfied the just wrath of a holy God against that sin (Rom. 3:24-26; 1 John 2:2; 4:10). His death paid in full the penalty of God’s wrath for our sins (2 Cor. 8:9; 1 Pet. 3:18).
The Father put all the suffering of humanity on Christ, as we read in Isaiah, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (53:4 ESV).
On the cross of Jesus God Himself is crucified. The Father… takes upon himself all the pain and suffering of history. In this ultimate solidarity with humanity he reveals himself as the God of love, who opens up a hope and a future through the most negative side of history.
And yet to the Colossians, Paul indicates that something is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. Christ’s afflictions were perfect, but incomplete; something was left for Christ’s followers to add to His afflictions!
It’s important to make the distinction between Christ’s sufferings and His atonement. The latter is complete; the former is not. Some authorities distinguish between Christ’s redemptive sufferings and the suffering Paul speaks of in Colossians 1:24. A related passage is Philippians 3:10, “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” A full knowledge of Christ is impossible without sharing his sufferings.
Thus the suffering of the Christian is twofold: suffering which is common to all humanity, and suffering which is a consequence of Christian rebirth, the new resurrection life. The reason for the first kind of suffering may be a mystery, but the reason for the second kind is clear. Just as Christ “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8) (and by this the writer cannot mean the redemptive sufferings of the cross, which were entirely vicarious), so the Christian learns obedience through suffering.
First the sufferings, then the glory
Suffering, in God’s economy, can have a healthy, positive effect. God may allow suffering to incentivize repentance. He allowed Joseph to suffer “in order to preserve a numerous people” (Gen. 50:20) as he put it to his brothers. That I may know him, Paul writes to the Philippians, and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, (Phi 3:10 ESV). Paul’s letter to the Romans also includes this element of suffering and ties it to glory.
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs– heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Rom 8:16-18 ESV)
In fact, the very powerful fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians builds a case that the suffering of God’s people is essentially a prerequisite for the glory to come. With his characteristicly splendid prose, C.S. Lewis elaborates on this truth in his essay, The Weight of Glory.
For if we take the imagery of scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the morning star and cause us to put on the splendor of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, maybe very near the truth as prophecy. At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of the morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so. Someday, God willing, we shall get in. When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather that greater glory of which nature is only the first sketch. …
Meanwhile the cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is a Monday morning. A cleft has a opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside.
Or, as Peter puts it, “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you,” (1 Peter 5:10 ESV). Commenting on this verse, I heard Moody Church pastor Warren Wiersbe say, “The Christian life begins with grace, and ends in glory, and in between is suffering.”
It may be that God is working cosmically in the sufferings of His people toward a perfected glory to be revealed upon a day to come.
- Gary Brumbelow
 Jay Sobrino, Christology at the Crossroads, quoted in the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 804.
 Ibid, 805.
 C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1949), 16-18