Dear Prof. Hoeksema:
Colossians 1:24 (Douay Version) is one of the proof-texts used by the Roman Catholic Church for its teaching that indulgences may be transferred to the members of the church in Purgatory. I have no trouble rejecting this false teaching; but I do have a bit of trouble understanding Col. 1:24, even in the King James Version. My perplexity increases when I read in Rev. H. Hoeksema’s Exposition of the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 16, chapter 2, page 253: “And for this cause they are called to suffer with Christ, and so fulfill the measure of His suffering.” Will you please explain the text, and the concept of fulfilling the measure of the suffering of Christ?
First of all, let us get the text before us. The Roman Catholic Confraternity Version of 1941 (a revision of the Challoner-Rheims, or Douay, Version) renders it as follows: “I rejoice now in the sufferings I bear for your sake; and what is lacking of the sufferings of Christ I till up in my flesh for his body, which is the Church.” It is readily understandable that the text as here presented is used as proof for the idea of the transfer of indulgences to the members of the church in Purgatory. The sufferings, then, are understood as meritorious sufferings; the presupposition is that there must be something added to the meritorious sufferings of Christ; and the apostle, then, supplies those additional meritorious sufferings by his own suffering in the flesh, but does so for others, i.e., Christ’s body, the church, some of whom are in Purgatory.
But my questioner has problems with the King James rendering and its meaning. The KJV renders the text as follows: “Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church.” And my questioner’s “perplexity” is increased by the comment of the Rev. H. Hoeksema in connection with Lord’s Day 16.
Now I think that the basic problem here concerns our understanding of what is meant in a context like this by the sufferings of Christ. And then I call attention to the fact that Scripture looks at the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ from a two-fold point of view. The first is that of Christ’s atoning suffering. That is His suffering of the wrath of God in our place and on account of our sins. From this point of view, Christ’s suffering is unique and perfect. No one else can suffer or need suffer in that atoning sense. Nor is there anything lacking in it; but it is perfect and complete in every respect. Nothing need be added to it: He has fully atoned for all our sins. The second aspect of that suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ is that of His suffering at the hands of wicked and ungodly men on account of His being of the light, of cod, on account of His representing the name and honor and righteousness of God in the midst of darkness. Of that aspect of Christ’s suffering He Himself speaks more than once during His earthly sojourn; and of that aspect of His suffering the apostles speak also. It is from this latter point of view that it is also possible to speak ofsharing in that suffering and of filling up the measure of that suffering. It is this aspect of that suffering that is on the foreground in Philippians 1:29, for example: “It is given you in the behalf of Christ . . . to suffer for his sake.” And the expressed wish of the apostle, “That I may know him . . . and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death.” (Phil. 3:10) refers to the same thing.
But let me give you the complete explanation which the Rev. H. Hoeksema gives in his mimeographed commentary on Colossians. I will quote his comments and at the same time edit out the Greek references, which would only perplex you more. (Some day, incidentally, I hope that this entire commentary can be edited, popularized, and published. It is too valuable to have only the limited use which it has in its present form.) Here are the pertinent comments:
“The apostle in this verse speaks about himself as the apostle that is called to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. He assures us here that he rejoices in the suffering which he endures in behalf of the church and for the sake of the gospel. The reason for this rejoicing is no doubt to be found in what the apostle had written in vss. 15-22 about the Christ as the glorious head of the church and about all the blessings of salvation which the church has in Him and receives from Him. Considering this glory of Christ and His riches for the church, the apostle is able to rejoice in his suffering for Christ’s sake and for the sake of the church.
“Let us note, first of all, how the apostle in this verse describes his sufferings. He puts the word for ‘sufferings’ in the plural. By this he denotes, of course, the different forms of suffering to which he was subjected as the apostle to the Gentiles because of his preaching of the gospel. But the plural denotes not only that his sufferings were various and manifold, but also that they were numerous. He endured many sufferings for Christ’s sake.
“This suffering the apostle describes as ‘in behalf of and for the spiritual benefit of you, the Colossians. It was, of course, not only in behalf of the Colossians that the apostle suffered in the world, but in behalf of the whole church, in behalf of the whole cause of the Son of God. For he suffered as the apostle to the Gentiles, and for the cause of the gospel of Christ. Moreover, the apostle further defines this suffering in the words, ‘and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church.’ Through his sufferings he fulfills, or fills up, the sufferings, or tribulations, of Christ in his flesh, and that, too, in behalf of His body, which is the church.
“The term used here and rendered ‘afflictions’ means ‘oppressions’ or ‘tribulations.’ It denotes that one’s place in the world becomes very narrow, so that ultimately he has no place to stand any more. He is pressed upon from every side, and pushed out of the world. In the literal and ultimate sense, this oppression means death. This oppression even unto death the Lord Himself suffered as the head of the body. And the same oppression the apostle endured. Again and again the evil world pressed upon him, so that there was no room for him to stand. And finally he too was literally pushed out of his place in the world. Further, the text speaks of “that which is left” in the sense of “what is still lacking” of these tribulations. The idea is, therefore, that the suffering of Christ is not yet full, or complete, that there is still something lacking, or wanting, of this suffering; and that the apostle by his own suffering and oppressions fills up that which is still lacking, and does so in the sufferings in his own flesh. This requires further explanation, It is evident that a very close relation is here expressed between the suffering of Christ and that of the apostle—in general, between the suffering of Christ and that of believers. We may note in this connection:
1) That the reference here is not and cannot be to the mediatorial or vicarious sufferings of Christ. In this the believers have not and cannot have any part in the sense that they must fulfill it. It is all by itself perfect and complete. But the reference is to the sufferings of Christ as He endured them on the part of the world. The world hated Him and caused Him to suffer because He revealed the Father; because in the midst of the world that was in darkness and hated the light He witnessed of the light, that world stood in enmity over against Him and filled Him with reproach and shame.
2) That this same suffering also comes upon the believers because by His Spirit Christ dwells in them. Through them Christ comes to manifestation in their testimony and in their entire walk. Hence, they too stand for the cause of the Son of God in the midst of the world. And that world dwells in darkness. Literally the world hates and oppresses always the Christ, even in the believers.
3) Although Christ is personally in heaven and far exalted above the very possibility of suffering, yet He is standing in a close, most intimate relation to the church, which is His body, and still suffers in and through them.
“Now the question is: what is the meaning of the expression ‘what is still lacking’ in connection with the verb ‘to fill up’ (‘to fill up in turn’)? In this connection it signifies ‘to fill in that which is still lacking, or wanting, of a full measure.’ The question therefore is: what is the full measure to be filled? Does the apostle here think of the full measure of his own suffering, which he will presently fill completely by his death? This is the interpretation of some, including Meyer. But it is certainly not the meaning of the text. The text refers, first of all, not to the suffering of the apostle, but to the afflictions of Christ. If this had been the meaning of the apostle, he would have expressed himself much more directly by saying, for instance, ‘I fulfill my suffering, or oppression, for the sake of Christ.’ But the text speaks of ‘tribulations of Christ,’ evidently presupposing that there is a full measure of sufferings and oppressions of Christ which is determined by the counsel of God from all eternity. This measure is principally and centrally filled by the sufferings of Christ Himself during His sojourn in the world. But there are still remnants of this suffering left. And these are filled up by the tribulations of the body of Christ from the time of Abel even to the time of the last martyr on earth. This measure also the apostle is filling up:
“This suffering the apostle endures in his flesh, that is, in his natural body. It is only through and in that flesh that the apostle is connected with the world. And that hostile world can touch him and inflict its tribulation upon him only in that flesh. In his inner man he can still rejoice in his suffering because he realizes it is for the sake of the church.”