The Purpose and Power of Ministry
Caffeine is big business in our crazy busy culture. Americans spent over $10 billion on energy drinks in 2018.[i]These popular beverages promise to get you back to 100%, to offer a mid-afternoon wake up call, to revitalize body and mind, to give you an energy upgrade. While I’m not a big fan of energy drinks, I love coffee and certainly contribute my share of the 146 billion cups consumed each year in the U.S. Tired people with full schedules often turn to coffee, energy drinks, and soda to keep going and stay alert and focused throughout the day.
What gives you strength, energy, and motivation to keep going in busy or stressful situations? The apostle Paul worked tirelessly in his ministry without the aid of Starbucks and Red Bull. What was his secret for joy in the jailcell, for proclaiming Christ when opponents hurled insults and stones, for maintaining hope in discouraging times?
In the book of Colossians, the apostle celebrates the supremacy, centrality, and sufficiency of Christ. In 1:15–20, Paul scales the theological heights as he proclaims the preeminence of Jesus, then he urges the church to continue in the faith not shifting from the hope of the gospel. In our passage for today, we see that Christ is not just preeminent and exalted over all; he is also present with his people, strengthening and sustaining us in the valleys.
Colossians 1:23 says that Paul became a minister of the gospel that has been proclaimed in all creation. In 1:24–2:5, the apostle unpacks four marks to this gospel ministry:
- Suffering with Joy (1:24)
- Stewarding the Word (1:25–27)
- Showing Christ (1:28)
- Struggling with Christ’s Power and Purpose (1:29–2:5)
1. Suffering with Joy (v. 24)
The opening phrase of verse 24 is surprising: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.” Not just joy on the other side of suffering but joy in suffering. Remember that Paul penned this Christ-centered letter from a dark, dingy Roman prison (Col 4:3). Deprived of life’s comforts, estranged from his friends, falsely accused, what is the secret of Paul’s jarring joy? He rejoices in suffering because his great purpose in life is to please Christ and make him known to others.
Paul explains that God’s design for his suffering is to “fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” This is a difficult verse to understand. We need to ask: what could possibly be lacking in Christ’s afflictions? We know from this letter that by his redemptive suffering Jesus canceled our debts (2:13), reconciled us to God (1:22), disarmed the powers of darkness (2:15), and secured enduring peace (1:20). What is “lacking” in Jesus’s afflictions is that not everyone knows about the glorious forgiveness, reconciliation, victory, and peace that Christ has achieved. Paul’s own suffering serves as a kind of living sermon illustration, a personal presentation of the suffering savior he proclaims.[ii]
Notice that Paul emphatically says that he suffers and fills up Christ’s afflictions for the sake of God’s people, the church. He views his suffering not as random but purposeful, to present the surpassing worth of Christ to others.
2. Stewarding the Word (vv. 25–27)
In v. 25, Paul explains his apostolic ministry as “stewardship from God.”A steward is charged with overseeing, managing, and protecting the master’s property. The Brink’s driver can’t just use the truck full of money that he drives around for his own pleasure. Rather, he must faithfully and securely transport the money from point A to point B as a steward under authority. A babysitter’s job is to watch and care for children according to the parents’ instructions. The kids do not belong to the babysitter as soon as the parents leave; she is a steward, not the parent. Likewise, the apostle Paul is a servant and a steward, entrusted with proclaiming and protecting the precious Word of God for the benefit of the church.
In verses 26–27, Paul explains the particular message he stewards as “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.” My kids like “mystery” books and detective stories, where there is a problem or riddle that is solved in the end. In the NT, the word “mystery” refers to God’s secret purposes that have now been made known in the last days. The content of this revealed mystery is “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (v. 27). Paul unpacks this truth further in chapter 2, where he says that he longs for the church to understand and know “God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”
We’ve seen that suffering with joy and stewarding the Word are two key marks of gospel ministry. Our third mark comes in v. 28: showing forth Christ.
3. Showing forth Christ (v. 28)
Paul sums up his great passion and calling in three words: “him we proclaim” (v. 28). Proclaiming Christ means preaching or showing forth the glorious truths of the gospel. In the rest of this verse, Paul explains how and why he proclaims Christ.
First, proclaiming Christ involves “warning” (ESV) or “admonishing” everyone (NIV). Paul says to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:31, “For three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.” Admonishing and warning stress the weightiness and urgency of believing and obeying God’s Word. We may warn unbelievers, calling them to repent of sin and turn to Christ, their only hope in this life. But we also need to admonish fellow believers in love. Christians can easily become discouraged in trials, distracted by the world, and even deceived by false teaching and the empty promises of sin. We need to regularly hear and heed the warnings and promises of God’s Word.
Second, proclaiming Christ involves teaching everyone with all wisdom. Teaching refers here to instruction and training in sound doctrine. We need to continually grow in our understanding of biblical truth, that we might grow in our knowledge and love of God and be able to explain the Christian faith to others.
Teaching and warning go together, because we must know what is true according to the Bible, and we must believe and obey that truth. Teaching sound doctrine and admonishing church members are essential duties of pastors, but Col 3:16 calls all Christians to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom.” Brothers and sisters, does the word of Christ dwell in you richly? Are you encouraging one another and being encouraged to believe and obey God’s Word in your small groups, House meetings, and cohort gatherings?
We have seen how Paul proclaims Christ—by warning and teaching. Now he explains why he proclaims Christ in this way. The apostle’s purpose and aim in his gospel ministry is to “present everyone mature in Christ.” Notice that Col 1:28 refers to everyone three times: warning everyone, teaching everyone, presenting everyone mature in Christ.
Paul’s language here is very similar to 1:22, where he explains that Jesus reconciled believers by his death “in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.” This means that Jesus’s ministry of reconciliation and Paul’s ministry of proclamation share the same goal: our maturity and holiness in Christ.
4. Struggling with Christ’s Power and Purpose (1:29–2:5)
We have seen three marks of gospel ministry: suffering with joy, stewarding the Word, and showing forth Christ. Verse 29 adds a fourth mark: struggling with Christ’s power. Paul writes, “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” For this refers to the full scope of ministry described in v. 28: proclaiming, warning, and teaching that everyone might be mature in Christ. In ch. 2, Paul goes on to explain his great struggle that these believers may be encouraged and fully assured in their knowledge of Christ.
A farmer labors in his fields for months until finally his hard work pays off at harvest time. In the same way, Christian ministry—and faithful Christian living more broadly—involves hard work and struggle. Elsewhere Paul says that he “worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor 15:10). In Romans 16, Paul commends four women who work hard in the Lord. I love how Paul describes his coworker Epaphras in Col 4:12–13: “Epaphras [is] always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you….”
In Col 2:3, Paul summarizes the purpose of his great struggle in ministry: “that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery…”
Are you fighting against sin and temptation and struggling for holiness and joy in the Lord, or are you coasting in your faith? Perhaps some in this room are working hard in the Lord and struggling against sin, and you are growing weary. Speaking personally, the beginning of this school year has been physically, emotionally, and spiritually draining. The Lord has used this passage to remind me how much I need him to sustain and strengthen me in my weakness.
So the last line of verse 29 is incredibly encouraging and life-giving to me: struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. We celebrate victorious athletes who show more strength, speed, skill, and stamina than the competition. But the power and energy to live the Christian life and work hard in ministry is supernatural, not natural.
The apostle Paul probably endured more hardship and heartbreak than any of us, yet he kept laboring and struggling to proclaim Christ. How did he do it? Sam Storms puts it well: “He retained an eternal perspective … and he relied on an eternal power…. Paul toiled without losing heart and struggled successfully because he drew deeply from the well of the infinite and unending energy of God!”[iii]
So Paul fills up what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings to show forth Christ to others, but as he does so, it is the power of Christ that strengthens him. According to Ephesians 1:19–20, the same supernatural power that raised Jesus from the dead is at work in and for us as believers. We need to draw on this deep well of divine energy to proclaim supernatural truths and live supernatural lives.
What might it look like for us to struggle with supernatural power and purpose this week?
- It might look like asking for God to help you through your Greek homework when you feel like watching Netflix.
- It might look like responding to a difficult coworker or family member with disarming kindness and grace.
- It might look like a weary parent putting on love to care for children early in the morning.
- It might look like resisting temptation and choosing to honor God in a compromising situation.
- It might look like trusting God to provide for your needs and sustain you through a difficult time with your health or finances.
In short, struggling with Christ’s energy looks like more of Christ and less of ourselves. That’s what Christian ministry—and the Christian life—is all about.
[ii]For a similar explanation, see John Piper, “Filling Up What Is Lacking in Christ’s Afflictions,” Desiring God, 19 October 2008, https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/filling-up-what-is-lacking-in-christs-afflictions; Brian J. Tabb, “It’s the Hard Knock Life: Paul and Seneca on Suffering,” in Paul and the Giants of Philosophy: Reading the Apostle in Greco-Roman Context, ed. Joseph R. Dodson and David E. Briones (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2019), 151.
[iii]Sam Storms, Biblical Studies: Colossians(Edmond, OK: Sam Storms, 2016), Col 1:29.