Even a brief look at the apostle Paul’s view of Christian suffering cannot fail to unsettle us. It may surprise us that Paul hardly ever mentions Jesus’ sufferings as such: almost always it is in the context of believers’ suffering. Our suffering in union with Jesus is a theme Paul leans on so heavily, I find it disturbing. There is far too much material to present here. Here’s a taste:
Suffering can be seen as the essence of Paul’s ministry and apostleship:
But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! For this man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and the sons of Israel. I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Acts 9:15-16
Paul understands suffering as a fundamental part of his calling:
For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, and that is why I suffer as I do. 2 Timothy 1:11-12
This suffering was actually a participation in the suffering of Jesus:
For … the sufferings of Christ abound toward us… We are always carrying in the body the death of Jesus… 2 Corinthians 1:5; 4:10
In Paul’s suffering, Christ’s sufferings are in some way still being completed:
I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. I became its servant according to God’s commission… Colossians 1:24-25
Paul sees this participation in Jesus’ sufferings as an essential part of ALL gospel ministry, not just his own. He exhorts Timothy:
Do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, or of me his prisoner. But join in this suffering for the gospel, by the power of God… 2Tim. 1:8
Suffering then was not a by-product but really a core part of gospel ministry. It IS gospel ministry:
As for you, be sober always, suffer, do the work of an evangelist: carry out your ministry fully. 2Tim. 4:5
And this ministry is entrusted not only to leaders but to the whole church:
For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well… Philippians 1:29
So Paul sees his participation in Jesus’ suffering as a role model for all believers:
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death... Therefore, all who are mature should think this way. Philippians 3:10,15
In fact he views the Christian calling as essentially one of suffering:
so that no one would be shaken by these afflictions of yours. For you yourselves know that we are appointed for this. For in fact when we were with you, we were telling you in advance that we would suffer affliction, and so it has happened… 1Thessalonians 3:3-4
This fellowship of suffering is so basic to the Christian life that without it there can be no hope of glory:
…and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. Romans 8:17
For Paul, then, the gospel is a call to participate in Jesus, first and foremost in his suffering and death – though later on in his glory also. God’s will for us is that, by joining in with Jesus’ story, we are able to follow him through death and into eternal life. Suffering is not an unfortunate by-product of faith: it is core Christian experience.
In the gospel we are called to come and suffer with Jesus.
And this responsibility to suffer falls especially onto church leaders.
Tomorrow: did you notice the strange twist in that?