I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (Phil 3:10-11)
Here the Apostle gives true voice to his heart and expresses the desire of an authentic disciple. To Paul, nothing mattered but Christ. Indeed, he had just finished describing how he counted every attainment as rubbish for the “surpassing greatness of knowing Christ”.
As a young man, Paul had been a rising star with all the advantages of the world. Undoubtedly born to a well-to-do family, he possessed coveted Roman citizenship, and studied underneath the greatest Rabbis of the period. By the age of 20, he had earned the ancient equivalent of two PhD’s in theology.
By his own assessment, he had been “advancing in Judaism” far beyond his peers. No doubt there were people who spoke of this marvellous, energetic, zealous young Pharisee as a potential candidate to become a ruler of Israel and one day ascend to the Sanhedrin Council. He was going to go far in the intellectual and religious world. “We must keep an eye on this man!” A glittering career as a reputable Rabbi lay before him, and some people may have even gone so far as to predict that he might one day become High Priest.
Then he met with Jesus on the Damascene Road.
Paul lost everything thereafter. He was penniless. He was in and out of prison, at other times running in fear of his life. He was beaten with whips and beaten with rods. Sometimes he was cold and hungry. And doubtless there were people who looked at his life with amazement and astonishment.
“You gave up your money, your career, your reputation and for what? What do you have to show for it? Only this Jesus.”
Yes, “only” Jesus. That is how unbelievers (and Satan) will attack a person when they suffer for Christ. “You’ve given up [insert loss] and what do you have to show for it? Only this Jesus“. Sometimes that unworthy thought can even occur to a person within their own heart, yet the gospel – saturated in divine reality – tells us this is not so. Christ Jesus is not a mere consolation prize or a second-class inheritance to the really valuable earthy stuff that is surrendered. Rather, Christ is THE gift. To fail to see this is to fail to know him.
To share the sufferings of Christ gives a man fellowship with him and knowledge of him, which is perhaps why St. Peter writes “rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ” – which is not only counter-cultural, but also deeply alien to the normative human experience. Something divine and supernaturally spiritual must occur deep in a person’s heart for them to be able to rejoice in suffering. How is that even possible for a human person? How? Because Christ meets the sufferer.
What were the sufferings of Christ?
1. Rejection: Christ was rejected by men, but rejected as he held out the hand of fellowship, friendship and salvation. It is hard enough to endure rejection from mere acquaintances or colleagues, it is harder still to endure rejection from people for whom we mean to do good. For people to whom we wish only to offer love and friendship.
2. Knowledge: Not only did the Lord have to endure rejection, but, in his divinity he knew all things and all hearts. He knew every single mind. Thus he preached mercy to crowds of people he knew full well hated him, spoke against him, and even meant him harm. There is suffering in displaying love toward people we know to be our enemies.
3. The “unfairness” of his mission: Of course, God does not ask anyone to do anything unfair or unreasonable, since his will is eminently sensible when considered in the light of facts that only God is able to fathom. But in the Garden of Gethsemane as he struggled to shoulder the penalty for other men’s sins, did that thought ever occur to him? “Why must I suffer such deep agony for other people – why can’t they be responsible for their own sins?” A natural sense of justice must surely have tempted the Lord to allow people to suffer for their own iniquities. After all, they committed the sins.
4. Physical agonies: The agonies of the whip and of the cross, of the soldiers beating him, of the crown of thorns, of the indignities heaped upon his person, and the insults and spitting. These sufferings were terrible indeed, for they fell not upon the guilty, but upon the only innocent man who has ever lived on earth.
Meditating on the many sufferings of Christ will be deeply instructive, for he will join us in our sufferings if we intend to suffer in love, as he himself did.