Paul would have made a great used car salesperson.
OK, so hear me out on this one. What I mean is, in seeking to persuade the Colossians of the supremacy of Christ over all of the other
cars on the lot competing philosophies of the world, in today’s passage Paul uses two strategies often employed by used car salespeople. (For vastly different motives, of course, but you’re adults, you can cope with metaphors with a single point of comparison.) So what are the two strategies?
The first is that of scarcity: either the product is in short supply (you won’t find a car like this anywhere else); the time to decide is limited (this price is good for today only); or the salesperson has access to insider information (I shouldn’t be telling you this, but…). We’ll look at how Paul uses that – responsibly and ethically – tomorrow.
The second is that of rapport: the salesperson will present themselves as a likeable person, and try to find – or even manufacture – a little connection with the customer. (The idle chit-chat about sport or where you grew up isn’t as innocent as it seems!) They’ll normally do some small “favour” for you to prime you to want to reciprocate, which is why they seem so keen to give you a cup of tea or coffee. And above all, they want to be seen as being on your side, having your best interests in mind. So they go into battle on your behalf with their sales manager – portrayed as a shared enemy – to try to convince them to give you the best deal they can.*
Today, we’ll focus on how Paul uses this second strategy to convince the Colossians to accept his message. (If you’ve just joined us: for the content of that message, you’ll need to see the last two weeks – but basically it’s a warning not to be led astray by the philosophies of our age, but hold firm to the supremacy of Christ.) Lets read it now, stopping to note how he reminds the Colossian church that he’s on their side:
Colossians 1:24 Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.
This is a hotly-debated verse, with no shortage of suggested interpretations. What does Paul mean by “fill up… what is still lacking” when it comes to Jesus sufferings? Some say it refers to the expected sufferings that would take place when the Messiah arrived; Paul thus views his afflictions as part of that history-changing event. However, I think the most persuasive explanation relates to the context of his suffering for the sake of others as he proclaimed the Gospel. Just as Christ suffered affliction in his ministry of announcing the arrival of the kingdom of God, Paul continues to experience that affliction as he continues Jesus’ work, bringing that message to the Gentiles.**
Colossians 1:25-26 I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness— 26 the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. 27 To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
In other words, he’s telling the Colossians: I’m enduring suffering and hardship – gladly – for your sake, completing the work of Jesus by bringing you the message of salvation in Christ. I’m on your side, so listen to what I’m saying! Why else would I go through all of this if I wasn’t genuine?***
He reminds them that his goal is their maturity in the faith:
Colossians 1:28 He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.
And he’s working with all his – or rather, Christ’s – strength:
Colossians 1:29 – 2:1 To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me. 1 I want you to know how hard I am contending for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally.
Again, his goal is for their benefit, not his own:
Colossians 2:2-3 My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
By contrast, others don’t have your best interests at heart:
Colossians 2:4 I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments.
But Paul, even though he can’t be there in person, is there in spirit – or in the Spirit – delighting in their commitment to Jesus:
Colossians 2:5 For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how disciplined you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.
Again, the big picture message is clear: I’m doing this for you, so pay attention to what I’ve said so far, and what I’m about to say!
So Paul is on the Colossians’ side – evidenced by his preparedness to suffer for their sake as he continues the proclamation of God’s word to the Gentiles – so they should listen to him. Great! What’s that got to do with us?
Firstly, Paul isn’t just talking about the Colossians. Or the Laodiceans down the road. He applies this to “all who have not met me personally” (2:1), hinting that he had in mind not just his immediate audience, but all of the Gentiles to whom he was commissioned to go (1:27). By extension – over nearly two millennia of church history – that includes us. His preparedness to suffer to bring the message to the nations means we, too, should listen to his message. He has our best interests at heart.
Secondly, since Paul sees himself in continuity with what Jesus was doing (1:24), it’s right to infer that it’s not just Paul who’s on our side. It’s also the one in whose footsteps he follows, Jesus. God himself is for us, and sent his Son to suffer on our behalf, so that we too might “know the mystery of God, namely Christ” (2:3).
Thirdly, although this isn’t Paul’s primary teaching intent in the passage, it reminds us that we should expect “affliction” (of some kind) when proclaiming the message of Jesus. And we should consciously view it as being in continuity with Jesus’ own affliction. More than that, we should have the same attitude that Jesus (and Paul) did, joyfully doing it for the sake of those to whom we proclaim the message.
And fourthly, it should encourage us to listen carefully to those whose ministry has been personally costly. Perhaps just a little more so than those whose ministries have been “successful” when measured in human terms, or as viewed by the culture around us. Of course, just because someone has suffered opposition and affliction for the sake of their ministry to others doesn’t mean they’re always going to be right. But it says something about their goodwill toward those among whom they minister – the genuineness of their intentions – should earn them a respectful hearing.
*I explain this in exactly the same level of detail in my book Catching the Wave: Preaching the New Testament as Rhetoric (IVP, 2016). But I put this here for your benefit so you know I have a book available (not many people do), for the limited-time offer of $15 + postage. Technically, it’s limited, as I’ll die someday and I doubt very much whether my kids will keep selling it. Message me.
For more on the various methods of persuasion, see Robert B. Cialdini, Influcence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Or get a quick taste of it here. These methods can be used to manipulate, for our own gain; or they can be used (as they are quite frequently in Scripture) to persuade someone to think and act in their own best interests.
**See Scott McKnight, Colossians, p.190.
***Aristotle (The Art of Rhetoric, 2.5-7) listed three qualities that needed to be present for an audience to trust a speaker’s advice: (1) good sense – the audience needed to see them as capable of giving sensible advice; (2) goodness – they had to be perceived as being morally upright; and (3) goodwill – the audience needed assurance that the speaker was acting in their best interests. Paul, here in Colossians, is providing that assurance, using his suffering for their sake as supporting evidence.