The Agony of Victory

I. Paul’s Struggle for the Church in General

A. Paul, even according to his first calling (Acts 9:16), had a ministry of suffering (24). If the infinitely glorious, perfectly righteous Lord of all suffered, how can those who follow him in this fallen world avoid the same? Paul, one of the chief inflictors of suffering on the followers of Jesus, now takes their part and in himself finds identity with the sufferings of Christ.

  1. “Now,” for this present life while Jesus is in heaven and the world stills nurses its rebellion and its arrogance against the King, Paul rejoices in his identity with Christ and his body through suffering. The day will come, the “day of Christ,” when such a call to suffer in such a way will be over; but now, this condition brings joy. So, he says “I rejoice in my sufferings.” He did it in the jail after a beating at Philippi (Acts 16:25) and described his sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11:16-33 and made his sufferings one of the chief marks of his apostleship. In Romans 5:3, he extended his reasoning concerning why he rejoices in suffering—because it highlights the graces of endurance, character, and hope, which will not be disappointed. In Phil 2:17, 18, he saw his suffering in the form of a drink offering poured out on the faith of the Philippians.
  2. Paul’s views his sufferings as having two ends: one, it is for their sake, that is as Gentiles, they receive the benefit of Paul’s sufferings and are brought into the redemptive purpose of God. The church, the new covenant people, consists of person from all nations, ethnicities, and states of social esteem. In that way Paul’s suffering is “on behalf of” Christ’s body, the church. Two, in imitation of Christ, he takes his turn in suffering for the sake of righteousness, truth, holiness, and the glory of God. Christ claimed truthfully to be the Messiah (John 4: 25, 26); Paul made no such claim for himself. Jesus claimed to be one with the Father and the perfect picture of all the divine attributes of the Father (John 14:6-14); Paul made no such claim. Jesus suffered, not only at the hands of godless men, but was set forth by the Father as a propitiation for the sins of his covenant people (1 John 4:10; Romans 3:25); Paul had no such element in his suffering. The response of the world toward the absolute holiness and truthfulness of Christ, however, remains the same. Paul, and we also, fill up in that sense what yet remains in the world’s continued resistance to and often violent rejection of such a commitment to righteousness and holiness. Particularly, the claim that Christ and his gospel are exclusively the way to God is an item the world hates and will hate until Christ returns. These are the sufferings of Christ in which Paul and we participate. This constitutes an important aspect of the witness of the church, therefore;
  3. These sufferings are specifically those that his church will endure when it emulates Christ and bears witness to his person and work. Paul told Timothy, “Share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God,” and assured him that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” It lasts, however, only during this life for “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen” (2 Timothy 1:8; 3:12; 4:18).

B. Paul, by his calling, had a ministry of the Word (25).

  1. This is a stewardship given to Paul. “It is required of stewards, that a man be found faithful [trustworthy]”(1 Corinthians 4:2). Paul has not invented this message or been an entrepreneurial religionist, but was arrested by God, compelled as it were to this work (1 Corinthians 9:16). Though he calls the gospel “my gospel” (Romans 16:25; 2 Timothy 2:8) and “our gospel” (2 Thessalonians 2:14), he does not mean that he dreamed it or deduced it or commenced it, but only that the revelation he himself received is the only gospel and there is no other (Galatians 1:6-12; 1 Corinthians 15:1-3). If someone preached a “gospel” other than his gospel, theirs was false. His reception of this stewardship, though it was to the Jew first even as he usually practiced, his call was peculiarly bestowed on him for the saving benefit of the Gentiles.
  2. It involves a full manifestation of the Word—“to make full the word of God” (25). Paul did not have the option to pick parts of the revelation and leave others behind. He must be a steward of all: born of woman and Son of God, hell and heaven, repentance and assurance, cross and crown, obedience and grace, incarnation of humility and second appearing in glory. Paul asked the Christians of Thessalonica to pray that “the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you” (2 Thess 3:1). Primarily during his life, he made the word of God full through his preaching. The last verse of Acts views Paul in his rented house in Rome “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching the things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and unhindered.” Collaterally, his situations called for writing letters to churches and persons. In these he reiterated his spoken ministry. These written manifestations of his message took on the stature of Scripture, the written word of God (1 Thessalonians 2:13; 5:27; 1 Timothy 6:2b, 3, 20; 2 Timothy 1:13, 14; 3:10, 14-16; 2 Peter 3:15, 16). “Fully known” means two things. One He must preach, and write, without omitting any truth revealed to him. Two, it means that when the stewardship of this mystery reaches its final revealed proposition by those appointed to receive it, it will be complete; it will not come short of anything of revelatory status.
  • Paul preached truths that were hidden in the past from others (26). He emphasized that what was now preached with clarity and conviction formerly was a “mystery.” He wrote the same in Romans 16:25 saying that the preaching of Jesus Christ came according to “the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret” but has been manifested now. Religious philosophers that lurked among the people spoke much of their mysteries and sought to lead people astray. Their so-called mysteries were lies and delusions, products of their own philosophical imaginations. The apostolic revelation of the mystery pointed to a person, Jesus Christ, who had appeared in the flesh in a specific time and space and fulfilled in his own body all the expectations of the prophetic writings.
  • Paul said that the mysteries have been revealed in the gospel, preached among the nations through the prophetic writings (Romans 16:25). Jesus Christ has summed up and made plain all that the prophets had said. Peter said that the words of the prophets, their full meaning hidden even from them, were fulfilled by the preaching of the gospel (1 Peter 1:10-12). He reminded his readers that the appearing of Jesus Christ, his “power and coming,” gave final clarity to the prior revelation through the prophets and was given its final form in the writing of the apostles (2 Peter 1:16-21; 3:1, 2). To his saints, his holy ones, those who are his chosen (3:12), he has shown the “riches of the glory of this mystery” (27). Though Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and all Old Testament believers may be called “saints,” Paul has in mind the idea that sainthood is the point of identification for this new identity of the people of God. No longer does circumcision constitute the identifying mark of the people of God, but a holy transaction of regeneration effected by the Holy Spirit (2:11) in giving “saints” union with Christ in his saving work. Though revealed by the prophets, its true glory in the person and work of Christ makes the former seem as if it were hiding.
  • This realty explains why Paul inserted the phrase, “among the Gentiles” (27). The redemptive transaction of Christ has rendered the ceremonies that separated Jew and Gentile of no effect. Christ’s work cut through all the types and ceremonies to bring to light the true moral and spiritual issue at stake in the separation of sinners from God. Christ’s work opened up the only way in which they can be restored. Now we look at God’s people without such distinctions as Jew or Greek, circumcised or uncircumcised, slave or free (3:11) for all of these barriers have been eliminated through the single and absolutely necessary moral transaction of the atoning work of Christ and his consequent resurrection by the glory of the Father. This work means that the Messiah, Christ, clears the way for any of the sons of Adam, not just sons of Abraham, to be forgiven, justified, renewed, and made an heir of eternal life—“Christ in (or among) you, the hope of glory” (27). This truth undergirds John’s assurance to Jewish Christians of their forgiveness in Christ, an assurance that also is the common comfort for the Gentiles—“He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). God desires “all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” and Christ “gave himself as a ransom for all” so that Paul could be assigned as a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles (1 Timothy 2:4, 6, 7). Christ among the Gentiles, therefor, for all.

C. Paul proclaimed Christ., not a system of thought. The doctrines surrounding Christ form a beautiful system of theology, but it is useless and of no account if it does not ultimately arise from and conform to the fullness of who Christ himself was and is.

  1. In Paul’s proclamation of Christ, his focus concentrates on the person of the Lord Himself, not on the intellectual or ethnic qualifications of his hearers. There his message goes to every man. Paul is “admonishing every man and teaching every man” (28). His admonitions would relate to matters of conduct and his teaching would concern issues of doctrine. This is a shorthand way of saying he concentrated on the necessary relationship of law and gospel. Though our conduct should reflect righteousness as defined in God’s Law, we fall short, are under condemnation and need rescue from the power of darkness (1:13). We need one who is qualified to perform such a rescue and that is found only in Christ, the beloved Son of God, who, by his righteous labors, has given us both redemption and the forgiveness of sins (1:13, 14).
  • Paul’s proclamation of Christ to every man is done “with all wisdom.” Wisdom is the manifestation of integration. The more one is able to integrate the different parts of any idea so that the idea matures into a workable theory, then the greater wisdom is demonstrated. The more one can integrate a series of ideas or theories together to establish a more wholistic understanding, then the greater is the manifestation of wisdom. The more one can integrate the various parts of knowledge of God into a larger and more comprehensive truth, then the greater the wisdom. The more one can integrate the doctrinal truth of Scripture with the implied outcome in practical living, worship, and personal relationships then wisdom has increased and its power is manifested. Seeing all things in light of Christ himself, Paul had limits imposed only by his own finiteness, the extent of the revelation God willed to give him, and the impossibility of rational communication of some of the glories that God had given him above the ordinary experience of saved sinners (2 Corinthians 12:1-6).
  • Since the admonition and teaching was to every man, and the ideal of wisdom defined the method, then the goal must be to “present every man complete in Christ.” Teaching based on a full integration of the content of divine revelation in the context of redemption will result, by God’s grace, in the complete restoration of true humanity, as stated in 3:10 concerning the new man, “being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him.”

2.. Paul labors for this end (29). This labor involves Paul’s energy while it is dependent on the mighty internal work of God through the Spirit. In pursuit of his calling and the specific stewardship given him, Paul labors without reserve to the point of agony (agonizomenos). His energy for the task comes from an energy source generated by the endless stream of divine power—“according to his energy which operates energetically in me by the constant power of a divine dynamo.” Here Paul testifies to his own experience of his admonition to the Philippians, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12, 13). The appeal to God’s power does not mean that we do not exert ourselves. Being “anxious for nothing” (Philippians 4:6) does not mean that we do not engage in hard work to provide what is needed.


II. Paul’s Struggle for the Colossians in particular (2:1).

A. When Paul heard of congregations that contained a large number of Gentiles, he felt a keen responsibility to find a way to minister to them. This had involved great physical trials for Paul (2 Corinthians 11:23-30) but also brought out the earnest intensity of laborious prayer (1:9). He expressed his sense of God-ordained responsibility for the Gentles in his letter to the Romans. In 15:15-21, he wrote of how Christ had accomplished through him many things (“mighty signs and wonders by the power of the Spirit of God”) “in word and deed, to make the Gentiles obedient.” He assured these at Colossae that for them and for those at Laodicea he had a great struggle on their behalf.

B. He worked for maturity in their spiritual perception.

  1. He wanted to see their hearts encouraged by being “knit together in love” (2:2). He used a word that he also used in 2:19 speaking of the body being “held together.” In the latter Paul focused on the person and work of Christ as the source of unity and growth as opposed to the fantasies of esoteric visionaries. Here, we find a similar emphasis on Christ but this time with love as central to the attainment of the knowledge of Christ.
  2. As Paul continues to open the idea of “mystery” he wants the Colossians to know that all the experimental aspects associated with religious experience are found in Christ. He mentions, encouragement, love, assurance, understanding, and knowledge. When one engages religious persuasion, he looks for “assurance of understanding.” Paul says that the “riches” of such a state are found only in “a true knowledge of God’s mystery, Christ.” No other philosophy, no other ethic, no other religious ritual, or devotion to ascetic practices, or designated performance of penance will satisfy either the deepest human longings or the standard of truth. The full assurance of understanding is found only in a true knowledge of Christ himself.

C. This is because we find absolute sufficiency in who Christ is and what he has done.

  1. Paul affirms that in Christ, God has “hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (3). How does Paul’s presentation of Christ in this letter demonstrate that claim?
  • In Christ we see the clearest manifestation of deity that is possible for creatures to behold. “He is the image of the invisible God” ( 1:15).
  • In Christ the question of the origin of the world is answered. He is its Creator, and he has all authority over every single atom of the created order (1:15, 16).
  • In Christ we see the one who stands before creation as its owner and who causes it all to work together with purpose. Not only does it work materially through his power and wisdom, but all the events occurring within it are designed by him: “In him all things hold together.” (1:17).
  • Is there an answer to evil that exists in this world? Christ is the one who in his own body has procured redemption, united the redeemed into a community, guarantees that they will overcome death, and will be the object of their love and adoration as he rules over all things (1:13,14,18; 3:4).
  • Is there punishment for evil? By his position as the redeemer, he also will sit as Judge of those who persist in evil deeds and rebellion against his redemptive authority. We find in him not only infinite redemptive love, but the dignity and justice of one who manifests just wrath in judgment (3:6).
  1. No other religion or philosophy gives such a comprehensive and coherent, as well as historically manifested, view of these questions about existence. The arguments of false religions may be set within the framework of plausibility, but all will fail the test of final coherence, purpose, clarity, cogency, and historical demonstration. We find a final insufficiency of all plausible arguments that fall short of Christ (2:4). He knows that certain teachers have come among them to delude them and to set their devotion to Christ in a context that actually leads away from the finality and absoluteness of his person and work. He has heard, in that context that, so far, they have maintained the “good discipline and the stability of [their] faith in Christ” (2:5). Paul’s apostolic stewardship will not permit him to remain aloof from them, but thrusts him into the fray with further instructions about who Christ is and what he has done in order to make their faith so firm that no storms of intellectual opposition or physical threat can move them away. “Even though I am absent . . . I am with you . . . rejoicing” (5)
Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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