(This post is a continuation of last week's post. Please scroll down to see that one)
In some ways, this thought of persecution is related to another statement of the apostle Paul. This verse is found in the book of Philippians, where Paul says that the goal of his life is to “Know Him (Christ), and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (Philippians 3:10 NAS).
What does he mean, I have often thought to myself, when he talks about the “fellowship of His sufferings”?
Actually, this statement is part of a more complete declaration of Paul’s concerning his life’s intent and drive. It is a passage of scripture that I have often read and quoted to myself as I was driving or doing other daily chores. In part it reads,
But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:7-11 NAS)
I will not comment on this entire passage here, since to do so would require me to write far more than you wish to read, but you can see why it is such a rich statement concerning purpose in living, and why it is such a fertile field for thought and contemplation. The question remains however: What does Paul mean when he speaks of the fellowship of the sufferings of Christ?
"Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer
these things and enter into his glory?"
When we use the word suffering, it is usually in connection with a specific situation or ailment, as it is when we say that someone is suffering from cancer. Also, we most often connect it with some kind of pain or physical distress. Thus, when Paul speaks of “the fellowship of [Christ’s] sufferings,” we normally think of it in terms of His death of the cross and the physical and psychological sufferings that led up to it.
In part, this is accurate, but just as we saw when we examined the Greek word for persecution, we can learn something when we look at the Greek word for suffering. When the gospel writers talked about the suffering of Christ on the cross, they use the word pascho, which in the Bible always does speak of suffering from a specific and painful experience. However, when Paul speaks of the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings, he uses a different word, pathema.
This word pathema also can carry the same specific significance and can mean the same thing as pascho, but it is sometimes also used in a broader sense, such as it is in Romans 7: 18-215:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (ESV)
Here, Paul is not speaking about a specific instance when he suffered from abuse or something else. Rather he is speaking about the general state of our times, when the whole direction of the culture and society of the world is constantly at odds with the teachings and the life of Christ.
In fact in some ways, even nature itself is in a stage of suffering. I do not know if Paul is speaking here of things that happen in nature like disastrous storms, floods, earthquakes and volcano eruptions, or if it is just the fact that there is the steady process of decay and death that is present. Perhaps it is all of these.
It is the very fact that we are called to live through these times, when we must deal with death, destruction and godless societies, that we share in the sufferings of Christ. This is what he means in our verses in Philippians, when he speaks of the fellowship of sufferings of Christ. That is why Paul told the Corinthians that “the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance.” However, with those sufferings, “so also our comfort is abundant through Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:5). Though our lives in this world present us with suffering, we also have the promise of comfort in the power of Christ.
There is something especially powerful about the bond between two people who have gone through a specifically difficult or stressful situation together. These people often feel as if there is a part of them that no one can understand, except for this other person who was with them and lived through those times. The most obvious example of this is two war veterans who endured the extreme stresses of combat together. When they reunite after the conflict, even many years later, they often do not even say a word, but simply look in the eyes of one another and know that the other person knows what has been endured. This is the fellowship of sufferings.
We may not normally compare our everyday life in the world with the stresses of war, but actually, in light of what is truly the situation, there are similarities. We are in the midst of a great conflict, and often the forces of this world seem to be tearing down the very fabric of all that has been accomplished in Christ. This is not the case, of course, but sometimes in midst of conflict, it difficult to maintain a realistic perspective.
When Paul speaks of the fellowship of the sufferings of Christ, we have the knowledge that Jesus has also experienced the stresses of living through this conflict. It is not that He is a sort of general, who merely directs troop movements and decides strategies from the comfort and security of an office, removed from the horrors of the war. He has lived through all of the conflicts Himself and actually, He has already achieved the victory.
We will notice that when Paul speaks of the fellowship of the sufferings of Christ, he puts it in the context of the power of His resurrection. One day this present conflict will also be over. When it is, we will look into the eyes of Jesus and share an understanding that goes beyond any words that we could speak. This is an understanding that comes from the fellowship of His sufferings.