The Mysterious Ministry of Spiritual Maturity

24 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, 25 of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. 27 To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. – Colossians 1:24-29 ESV

As a faithful minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, there were times when Paul found his ministry to be difficult, but he was pleased to be able to suffer on behalf of His Lord and Savior. He viewed the trials and tribulations that accompanied his mission to be in keeping with the suffering experienced by Christ as He carried out His own earthly mission. Paul was well-acquainted with suffering. In fact, he wrote his letter to the Colossians while under house arrest in Rome, awaiting trial before the Emperor. He was able to share with the believers in Corinth a long and far from exhaustive list of painful encounters he had endured as a messenger of the gospel.

I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm.  – 2 Corinthians 11:23-27 NLT

But Paul wasn’t complaining about his lot in life. No, far from it. He was expressing his right to be treated as a legitimate spokesman for Jesus Christ. Like His Savior, Paul had faced a barrage of persecutions and personal attacks and, on top of all that, he had been forced to carry “the daily burden of my concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28 NLT). He was a faithful shepherd and caretaker for the flock of Jesus Christ who took his role seriously and faced persecution joyfully.

I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake…” – Colossians 1:24 ESV

Paul saw his sufferings as an opportunity to experience in some small measure “Christ’s afflictions” (Colossians 1:24 ESV). He was eternally grateful for the pain that Jesus endured on his behalf so that he might be freed “from this life that is dominated by sin and death” (Romans 7:24 NLT). And Paul was more than willing to suffer “for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24 ESV). It was the least he could do.

Paul understood that he had been made a minister of the gospel and given the responsibility of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ to the Gentile world. His job, while far from easy, was accompanied by great joy because he was able to witness firsthand the transformative nature of the message of salvation. Paul states that his message to the Gentiles was a mystery to God’s chosen people, the Israelites. The people of Israel had no concept that their long-awaited Messiah would be the Savior of the entire world, not just their own people. Even the disciples of Jesus had found it difficult to watch Him minister to Samaritans, Syrophoenicians, and even Romans. They had no category in their concept of the Messiah that accommodated a ministry to the Gentiles and yet, Jesus had told them, “I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father. So I sacrifice my life for the sheep. I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd” (John 10:14-16 NLT).

This mystery had remained hidden for generations and had not been revealed until after the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Even on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples, they began to minister to those who had gathered in Jerusalem for the annual feast. And the crowd was made up of  “Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5 ESV). Luke goes on to describe them as “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians” (Acts 2:9-11 ESV).

The crowd consisted of native Jews as well as converts to Judaism from a wide range of nations and ethnic groups. And when they heard the gospel message presented by Peter, they responded en masse.

So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. – Acts 2:41 ESV

Many of those individuals who had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost would return to their native countries, carrying the gospel message with them. And the apostle Paul would later join their forces and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ throughout the Gentile world. On his missionary journeys, he would encounter converts to Christianity who had heard the message of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone from their converted friends and neighbors. As Paul later told the believers in Ephesus, the mystery of Gentiles being grafted into the family tree of Abraham had been revealed and was making an impact on the world.

God gave me the special responsibility of extending his grace to you Gentiles. As I briefly wrote earlier, God himself revealed his mysterious plan to me. As you read what I have written, you will understand my insight into this plan regarding Christ. God did not reveal it to previous generations, but now by his Spirit he has revealed it to his holy apostles and prophets. – Ephesians 3:2-5 NLT

God had always intended to redeem people from every tribe, nation, and tongue. His Son would be the Messiah of Israel, but as God had promised Abraham, his offspring would prove to be a blessing to the “nations.”

And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 12:2-3 ESV

Jesus, a son of Abraham, had been the fulfillment of that promise. Paul made that point perfectly clear to the Gentile believers in Galatia.

Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. – Galatians 3:9-11 ESV

It was through Christ, a Jew, that “the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:14 ESV). And Paul was proudly declaring that message of hope to the Gentile world and gladly enduring suffering in order to do so. It was his privilege and honor. Jesus had died to make salvation possible, so the least Paul could do was suffer to make it available and accessible. And Paul wanted the Colossian believers to know that their hope was based on the reality of Christ’s presence within them. He had died, been raised to life, and now was seated at the right hand of God the Father. But following His ascension, Jesus had sent the Spirit of God to indwell His followers. In that sense, Jesus would not only be with them, but in them.

“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth. The world cannot receive him, because it isn’t looking for him and doesn’t recognize him. But you know him, because he lives with you now and later will be in you.” – John 14:16-17 NLT

Paul’s life mission was to proclaim this life-altering mystery of  “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:28 ESV). And he did so, “struggling with all his energy,” knowing that “he powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:29 ESV). And Paul’s ministry and message were comprised of both warnings and teachings. There were dangers to be avoided and lessons to be learned. There were false teachers who could undermine the hope of the gospel and there were constant temptations that could derail and diminish the witness of God’s people. Paul’s goal for the Colossian believers was nothing less than spiritual maturity. He would not settle for mediocrity or partial transformation. Since glorification was the ultimate goal of salvation, Paul remained committed to the ongoing sanctification of all those under his care. His lifelong objective was to one day be able to “present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28 ESV). That lofty goal will never be achieved in the believer’s lifetime but we have a firm promise from God that it will take place one day.

Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure. – 1 John 3:2-3 NLT

According to Paul, it is inevitable and unavoidable because it is the work of God.

And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns. – Philippians 1:6 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

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