Of all the doctrines expounded on the Lord’s Day, our sharing in the sufferings of Christ is perhaps one of the most neglected topics. This isn’t to say that the subject of suffering isn’t discussed or preached. Quite the contrary. Suffering, generally considered, is given ample attention. Where there is sickness, there one will hear the subject of suffering discussed at great length. But how often does someone ask: What are the sufferings of Christ, and how do I share in them? Or when was the last time the following was overheard, “I’m sharing in the sufferings of Christ”? Someone might describe themselves as a child of Abraham, or a true Jew, or an ambassador of Christ, or talk about being Spirit filled, or even crucified with Christ, but how often does the biblical concept of “sharing in the sufferings of Christ” directly flavor the everyday speech of saints? It is rarely heard.
But for the apostle Paul, our union with Christ, and by extension, our sharing in His sufferings, greatly informed his outlook and expectations. He could scarcely write a letter without touching upon the subject of suffering, and at several key junctures, he spoke freely and pointedly about sharing in Christ’s sufferings (1 Thess 1:6; 3:2-3; 2 Cor 1:5; 4:7-18; Rom 8:17; Gal 6:17; Col 1:24; Phil 1:29; 3:8-10. See also 1 Peter 2:21; 4:13). Not only did the concept imbibe his thinking, emerging effortlessly in his theological train of thought, but he even yearned for it, stating openly his desire to experience such sufferings. Writing to the Philippians, his heart’s desire emerges,
“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith-- that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:8-11).
Here Paul says, incredibly, that he wants to share in Christ’s sufferings, becoming like Him in His death. These are weighty words. So what do they mean? What are the sufferings of Christ and how do we share in them?
The Sufferings of Christ
Theologians differ as to the precise meaning and application of Christ’s suffering in the life of the believer. There are those who perceive a wider application of Christ’s suffering. They would urge that all of the struggles of life, so far as the Christian’s pursuit towards holiness is concerned, fall under its heading. Professor Jac Muller, commenting on Philippians 3:10-11, says, “Sharing in the sufferings of Christ, is, therefore, more than just suffering for the sake of Christ (in tribulation and persecution), or in imitation of Christ. It means all suffering, bodily or spiritual, which overtakes the believer by virtue of his new manner of life, his ‘Christ life’ in a world unbelieving and hostile to Christ.” He goes on to cite Lightfoot with approval, who says, “It implies all pangs and all afflictions undergone in the struggle against sin either within or without. The agony of Gethsemane, not less than the agony of Calvary, will be reproduced however faintly in the faithful servant of Christ.”
From the vantage point of Scripture, this position isn’t without warrant. In Hebrews 2:10-18, the author, while discoursing on Christ’s fitting acquaintance with suffering for the salvation of the saints, links temptation with suffering. He writes, “For because He Himself has suffered when tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb 2:18). Clearly, then, Christ’s engagements with temptation fall under the more general rubric “sufferings.” Seeing how He was tempted in every way as we are (Heb 4:15), His entire life was a trial. It will not do, therefore, to restrict His sufferings to Calvary alone (see also Romans 8:17 in context).
While this is no doubt true, the general thrust of the data tends to support a more narrow understanding of the doctrine. One might ask, for example, whether or not the loss of a six month old child should be understood in terms of sharing in the sufferings of Christ. While such loss is certainly tragic and emotionally tearing and in every way a form of suffering, it might seem a bit odd for the parents to say, “With the loss of this child, I’m sharing in Christ’s sufferings.” Only in a more remote sense would it be true.
The more precise (or narrow understanding) of sharing in the sufferings of Christ is aptly summarized by Gordon Fee. After conducting a careful examination of Philippians 3:10-11, he summarizes his conclusion as follows:
“Thus Christ’s sufferings do not refer to ‘sufferings in general,’ but to those sufferings that culminated in his death, all of which was for the sake of others. Likewise, it is not just any kind of present suffering to which Paul refers in the preceding phrase, but to those which in particular express participation in Christ’s sufferings; and the aim, as well as the character, of such suffering is to ‘become like him in his death,’ which almost certainly means suffering that is in some way on behalf of the gospel, thus for the sake of others, since no other suffering is in conformity to his.”
According to this understanding, the sufferings of Christ are intrinsically missional, bound up with the Messiah’s redemptive purposes. This means that sharing in the sufferings of Christ relate more to persecution in the context of the Great Commission, and by extension, combating the kingdom of darkness, than the natural groanings and frustrations of our present evil age. This explains why the vast majority of texts touching upon this subject have in view the kind of suffering inherent to missions and the inbreaking of the kingdom.
This helps illuminate Paul’s somewhat perplexing words to the Colossians, when he writes, “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” (Col 1:24). Paul’s missional activities, which inevitably involved conflict and persecution (Acts 13:50; 14:19; 2 Cor 11:25; 2 Tim 3:10-11), functioned as an extension of the cross work of Christ. This does not mean that the cross was deficient in any sense, but rather that the believer becomes a partaker of the afflictions of Christ and embodies the same serpent-crushing tactics as Christ.(1)
2 Corinthians 4:7-18 is instructive here. After cataloging a series of ministerial trials, including being perplexed and struck down (vs. 7-9), Paul immediately grounds these tribulations in having been united to Christ. He writes,
"We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you” (2 Cor 4:10-12).
Paul’s words are striking. Both the life and death of Christ are at work in the believer, budding and flowering in the context of suffering, as if the very troubles of ministry provide the spring rains for its growth. Paul’s life is one of continual dying, even dying daily (1 Cor 15:30-31), and he can take up the words of the Psalmist, who said, “For Thy sake we are killed all the day long, we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter” (Rom 8:36)(2). For him, and for all those united to Christ, the task of spreading the gospel isn’t an activity restricted to the words which might come out of one’s mouth (as indispensable as that might be), but it is an activity involving the whole man. It is a sacrificial activity, a painful activity, one where the power of Christ’s life, a power manifested through weakness and suffering, stretches out through the skin of the Christian and is received through the brandings of persecution. This is why Paul can say, “Therefore I endure all things for the elect's sakes, that they may also obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Tim 2:10).
(1) Commenting on Galatians 6:17, where Paul says that he bears on his body the marks of Jesus, which more than likely refers to his scars, Herman Ridderbos writes, “They are called marks of Jesus, not because Paul received the same wounds in his body which Jesus received, but because in these tokens his fellowship in suffering with Jesus becomes manifest. This demonstrates also that what the believers must suffer at the hands of the world’s enmity is the same thing that Jesus had to undergo—not the same in its fruit, but in its nature. Incidentally, this suffering is more than an affliction for the sake of or in consequence of following Jesus. A certain transfer of suffering from Jesus to the believers takes place by virtue of the fellowship, the corporative and federal oneness existing between them.” Commentary on Galatians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), 228.
(2) Philip Hughes, commenting on 2 Cor 4:10-11, writes, “Christ, it is true, has left the Christian an example of patience and perseverance in suffering (1 Peter 2:21; Heb 12:3); so that they who wish to come after Him must daily take up their cross and follow Him (Luke 9:23). But Paul is speaking of something more than example. Between Master and follower there is a certain unity of experience and destiny. There is an inclusiveness of the latter in the former. It was Christ Himself who said, ‘A servant is not greater than his lord; if they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you’ (John 15:20). There is a fellowship of Christ’s sufferings which means a conformity to His death (Phil. 3:10). Martyrdom, for Paul, was not confined to the hour of his death in Rome; it was expressed daily and constantly in his dying-living existence.” NICNT, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1980), 142.