Guest post by Rob Ventura & Jeremy Walker
Have you known any martyrs? Church history overflows with examples of sterling Christians who have given their lives for the sake of Christ. One of Western Protestantism’s most enduring and effective works of literature is Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, a compilation of histories of Christians suffering in the service of Jesus. Modern times have supplied us with more names, including some that have— in the eyes of some Christians—already become almost glamorous at a slight distance, such as those of Jim Elliot or John and Betty Stam. However, while many in the modern West know the stories, few of us have known any martyrs. Few of us have holes in our lives, gaps in the ranks of friends or families, created by our loved one’s death in the service of King Jesus. In some parts of the world, death at the hands of the enemies of Christ’s kingdom is all too common.
It was our privilege to know two of Christ’s martyrs. Since 1999 Pastor Arif Khan and his wife Kathleen (Kathy to her friends) had faithfully labored in Islamabad, Pakistan, where Pastor Arif had planted a church. In August 2007, three people—a disaffected ex-member of the church, his wife, and a gunman from an aggressively Islamic region—made their way by deceit into the Khans’ home and shot our friends dead.
Our friends. The believers. The martyrs.
Why were they there? What had carried them from the comfortable confines of the United States, away from friends and family, children and grandchildren? Why leave their home church? Why stay in Pakistan when reaction to American foreign policy and activity made their existence there increasingly dangerous? Why remain in the face of threats to their lives? Why teach and live so as to seal their testimonies with their life’s blood?
How do you reach this point? Not necessarily the point of martyrdom, but the point of willing and entire consecration, of being sold out for the one living and true God, ready to give all that you are and have for His sake and for His cause?
What would the Khans have said? At least part of their answer—a great part of their answer—would have been for the sake of Jesus Christ’s body, the church. They had a consuming desire to see the church built up so that through those who have been redeemed the manifold wisdom of God would be known to others (Eph. 3:10). They saw the importance of spreading the gospel to a lost world. This man and woman “loved not their lives unto the death” (Rev. 12:11). One of their own pastors said of Arif Khan, “He was a marked man. He talked of dying for Christ as though it was having a mole removed.”
It is not often that we meet people who are willing to spend their energy and even give their lives for the sake of seeing the church of the Lord Jesus Christ established and strengthened. This was the mind of the Khans; it was also the mind of the apostle Paul.
Paul gave his all for the people of God. He loved them at great personal cost. As he writes his letter, Paul tells the Colossians that he rejoices even in his prison sufferings because of his love for them. Now he specifically points to the nature and purpose of those sufferings, saying, “I…fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church” (Col. 1:24). What does he mean, and what must we understand?
So what does Paul mean? First, we must consider the words of the sentence itself. The word that has to do with “filling up” appears only here in Scripture. It carries the idea of completing something for someone else. The present tense of the verb and the immediate context in which it is used tell us that this was something that Paul was continually doing. When Paul speaks of something “behind of the afflictions of Christ,” the language suggests something lacking, that which still exists or is left over.
Then there is the word afflictions. This word speaks of oppression, tribulation, trouble, or persecution. It is, however, crucial that this word is never used in the Bible to refer to the sufferings that Jesus underwent on the cross for our sins.
Second, we must put this declaration in the context of the whole Colossian letter. The whole point of the letter so far has been to establish Christ’s supremacy as the saving and sovereign head of His people (contrast Paul’s self-owned label in verse 25 of “minister,” not mediator or redeemer).
So, in Colossians 1:14, Paul speaks of Jesus as the one “in whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins.” The present possession of redemption and forgiveness is based upon the precious blood of our Savior, and not the sacrificial work of any sinner, even one who was an eminent apostle.
Paul says again with reference to Jesus, “It pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell; and, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven. And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight” (Col. 1:19–22).
There is nothing lacking in the Lord Jesus Christ, either in His person or in His work. All saving fullness dwells in Him, and He is the means by which the Father reconciles men to Himself. Specifically, the terms of that peace He secured are written in the blood that Jesus shed on the cross for His people. It is the bloody death of Jesus alone that saves.
In these words there is neither room nor need for any other but Christ. If all fullness dwells in Him, what shall fallen mankind add to Him or His work? If it has pleased the Father to reconcile people to Himself solely by means of the crucified Christ, how can any suggest that Christ is in any way insufficient, especially after His glorious resurrection vindicated all that was said about Him (Rom. 1:4; 4:25)? If peace was already secured through the blood of Christ upon the cross, once for all (Eph. 2:13–14), what place is there for any other grounds of peace?
Indeed, Paul will not let this theme lie: “And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross” (Col. 2:13–14).
To take the perfection of Christ and His work and to say that people somehow must add further to it completely misunderstands and undermines the profound nature of what God has accomplished through His incarnate Son. It fails to take account of the complete inability of anyone to please God, let alone save himself, apart from the glorious Jesus.
Would it not be both foolish and blasphemous to seek to insert human effort, positively or negatively, into the divine plan of a gracious salvation? Did Christ not say, “It is finished” (John 19:30)? Paul would surely be the world’s most incompetent debater if he were now to state something that runs directly or even tangentially counter to all that he has just established. He is a wiser man than that.
Third, we must also take into account the comprehensive and consistent testimony of Scripture. The plain teaching of the Word of God is that Christ alone accomplished all that was required for the salvation of His people when He suffered once and for all in their place at Golgotha (see, for example, Isaiah 53:4–6 or Hebrews 1:3; 10:14). There is no deficiency of any sort in Christ’s sacrificial death, and to suggest otherwise opens the door to a host of other empty possibilities, including the notion of works of supererogation (the idea that unusually holy people have a surplus of merit that others can benefit from), the veneration of Mary the mother of Christ, and the concept of penance for sins.
It is already clear that the atoning interpretation is entirely incorrect. Christ’s sacrifice for sin was in no way deficient. The sufferings that Paul underwent had no saving merit: the apostle did not contribute in any way whatsoever in redeeming the people of God. Jesus Christ alone has suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God (1 Peter 3:18). Our Bibles make plain that it is Christ alone, through His saving sufferings, who brings us into a right relationship with God the Father.
However, there are other lines of thought in Scripture that we must take into account when working out what Paul does mean. In 1 Corinthians 12:12 Paul states that the saints are many members of one body, the head of which is Christ. The same unity of identity is plain in Matthew 25:34–40, where the works done for Christ’s people are considered as done to Christ Himself (or not, vv. 41–46). This involves unity of mission. In Acts 13:47 Paul appropriates language that Isaiah uses of the Lord Jesus to assume the same gospel role in setting forth the Christ: “For so hath the Lord commanded us, saying, I have set thee to be a light of the Gentiles, that thou shouldest be for salvation unto the ends of the earth.” This further implies unity of suffering, and Paul had this ground into his consciousness from the beginning of his ministry: “And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks…. For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:4–5, 16).
In summary, the sufferings of the body of Christ—the church—are the sufferings of Christ Himself (1 Cor. 1:5; 1 Peter 4:13), not in a redemptive, but nevertheless in a real, sense.
Note: This article is an excerpt from chapter three of A Portrait of Paul, by Rob Ventura and Jeremy Walker, with permission from Reformation Heritage Books. The general topic of suffering will be preached on by Derek Thomas at Pastor Ventura’s church in North Providence, Rhode Island, May 27-28, 2016. For more information about this event, click here.
 See Daniel Bergner, “The Believers,” The New York Times Magazine, December 30, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/30/magazine/30khans-t.html for more information about the Khans (accessed June 28, 2010).