THE FELLOWSHIP OF HIS SUFFERINGS

It is Holy Week, also known by its older name, Passion Week.  Most of us realize right away when we use that colorful word, passion, that in this context we are talking about the sufferings of Jesus Christ during His last week of ministry on this earth.  While it is often debated exactly what day Jesus was crucified (I happen to believe it was on a Wednesday and three and a half days later he was resurrected on or about 6 AM or sunrise, Sunday morning), it is seldom debated that He suffered excruciating anguish and pain.  The pain was not just a matter of scourging.  Nor was it solely a matter of the agony of crucifixion.  His last week required dealing with the fear assaulting His human soul of being handed over to the minions of Satan for a heinous time of torture, trial and execution.  We must remember:  while Jesus was fully divine, He was also fully human.  No one could face such a dismal, horrific fate without the highest degree of anxiety. His fear was much more than faceless dread — an existential anguish stemming from the threat of “non-being.”  Jesus knew exactly who and what He was facing.  No one needed to point out who He was up against.  He was most familiar with the face of His ultimate enemy.

The Passion of Christ
The Passion of Christ

But He faced more than an ominous attack on his flesh.  He understood that after death, his pathway to heaven would first go through hell, into Sheol (Hebrew for the abode of the dead, comparative to hell or hades in the Greek world) where He would proclaim victory over the fallen angels held captive there, sealing their fate.[1]  Lastly, His passion involved the recognition that His perfect communion with the Father would be broken, for a time at least, when God the Father would forsake Him. Recall the words of the evangelist Mark:  “And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)  We seldom realize that while we are privileged to face death with God alongside us, Jesus faced death alone, at least for some distressing period of time, possibly during the full three hours of darkness (from the sixth until the ninth hour) right up to the moment when He exclaimed, “It is finished” (Luke 23:46) which signified that His work as “the suffering servant” was accomplished.  At that moment, Jesus knew full well that His atoning work was completed.  With his work finished, He commended His spirit unto the Father and as the gospel writers say, “He gave up the ghost.”

Jesus suffered. He suffered far more than most any of us ever will. Consequently, it is during this week that one of our principal responsibilities as His disciples is to contemplate the many sufferings of the Messiah.  This contemplation, however, constitutes more than mere appreciation for what Jesus did on our behalf.  No doubt, that recognition is reason enough to garner our full attention.  However, we are to contemplate the sufferings of Christ for another very important reason. We must face the fact – indeed we must realize deep within our souls –it is a virtual certainty that should we be living the life of an authentic Christian, we too will suffer.  A servant is not better than his master. “Remember the word that I said unto you, ‘The servant is not greater than his lord.’ If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:20, NASV) Jesus promised us suffering as a seal of our adoption and, if you will, it stands as a certificate of authenticity.

In great contrast, most see the cost of discipleship in our day not as a cost but as a benefit.  To become a believer means generating profits for being a child of God.  Many who preach “cheap grace” compromise the message of Christ promising health and wealth without the risk of suffering for His sake.  Indeed, in America the gospel of prosperity has permeated the teachings of the most successful mega-churches (that is, success as measured by earthly standards).  There have always been those who teach that “godliness is a means of gain.” Paul called them “men of a depraved mind and deprived of the truth” (1 Titus 6:5, NASB).  True, Paul agreed that godliness does provide gain, but it does so only when accompanied with contentment (1 Titus 6:6).

Therefore, we must ask a series of disconcerting questions: “How many seek Christ today so that they will achieve success in the minds of their fellows?  How many enjoy notoriety for their lofty position as shepherds of Christ’s fold?  How many pursue the gospel crafted by the American Church so that they will receive the acceptance of society without realizing that truly accepting Christ most often entails society’s condemnation?  What really motivates belief in Jesus Christ in the Church today?  How large is the final tally of those who profess faith in Jesus Christ expecting to do so without any real cost to themselves?”  Today, the economics of becoming a Christian amounts to a cost-benefit analyses in which the eager proponents argue there no costs and lots of benefits.

In his classic book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned of days like these, days he himself saw lived out within Hitler’s Germany.   To be a Christian then meant to support the Third Reich — which would keep religion in its proper place — to let the State guide the affairs of society.  According to Hitler, spirituality should only provide “moral support.”  It should not venture into issues of judging political actions.  The Church should never question the propriety of what the State did.  The twain between Church and State should never meet.  But does the separation of Church and State, a heuristic we espouse in these United States, infer that kind of distinction?

Historically, we know that much suffering comes when Christians do choose to question the State.  No doubt also, the State would never concede any amount of accountability to the Church for the State’s agenda, policies, and programs.  In this world, authority flows the other direction.  It is the State that grants not-for-profit status to religious institutions and thereby controls much of what the Church does and doesn’t do.  The Church exists only because the State allows it to be so.  And yet, if Christ is Lord over all creation, He is Lord over the State as well.  How do Christians make the State accountable for the actions it takes?  How do we challenge policies that we believe conflict with the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Unfortunately, the separation between Church and State in America has grown into a vast chasm similar to what existed in Nazi Germany.  It has become a twisted rubric denying most Christian institutions (or businesses owned by Christians) any effective means to counter practices they see mandated by the Federal Government which conflict with their theological beliefs.  It should be no surprise that conflicts arise and are growing in magnitude in our country. We witness many contemporary actions of the Federal Government that we should question.  Some of these actions go so far as to penalize institutions that fail to fund abortions as desired by their employees (being mandated as part of their health benefits), out of a sense of the moral infraction implied by doing so.  Recognize that the refusal to follow “orders” is out of deep sense of biblical teaching.  Realize also that when the State goes to this length it is demanding adherence to a destructive maxim, a guideline which denies biblical absolutes.  Nevertheless, let us return to personal issues here rather than social ones.

Bonhoeffer discusses the faith of the patriarch Abraham who proved his commitment by offering Isaac as a sacrifice, a sacrifice that God ultimately did not want and would not allow.  Bonhoeffer notes how many would prefer to be like Abraham — to prove their faith once and then thereafter take up all their earthly goods again.  But he reminds us that Abraham, before the famous incident with Isaac on Mount Moriah (aka The Temple Mount), had already left his home, his father, and his earthly goods.  Christ had already come between Abraham and his earthly possessions.  Abraham had already chosen God instead of material things.   Thus, it is not commensurate with the faith professed in many churches today.  The proposition put forth in too many of these would-be Christian institutions proffers Christ as the means to earthly possessions, not the looming figure who warns us against placing our hope and faith in worldly goods.  Choosing Christ instead of possessions, seeking His face not the acquisition of wealth, is the true path to Christian discipleship.

However, what is most pertinent here is that by saying “no” to wealth as our utmost priority, we obtain Christ and a new fellowship he provides.  Bonhoeffer states this eloquently, and points out the key proviso we must acknowledge when discussing Jesus’ response to Peter, his most noteworthy disciple (who wonders aloud whether the cost has been worth it).  Peter laments that the disciples had given up everything to follow Him.  What benefit will they receive in exchange?

They receive the promise of a new fellowship. According to the word of Jesus, they will receive in this time a hundredfold of what they have left. Jesus is referring to his Church, which finds itself in him. He who leaves his father for Jesus’ sake does most assuredly find father and mother, brothers and sisters again, and even lands and houses. Though we all have to enter upon discipleship alone, we do not remain alone. If we take him at his word and dare to become individuals, our reward is the fellowship of the Church. Here is a visible brotherhood to compensate a hundredfold for all we have lost. A hundredfold?  Yes, for we now have everything through the Mediator, but with this proviso —“with persecutions.” A hundredfold with persecutions — such is the grace which is granted to the Church which follows its Lord beneath the cross.[2] (Emphasis added)

And yet, note that the fellowship is not just with a new found community of fellow believers.  No, it is communion with Christ Himself.  Indeed, Paul makes mention of a means to experience the depth of intimacy with Jesus Christ. It is a means we don’t often consider let alone contemplate with any great depth.  But in this Passion Week it is indeed a perfect time to recognize a strategic but mostly overlooked principle Paul proclaimed.  Just to be perfectly clear, let us ask, “What is this method to experience Jesus Christ deeply within our spirits?”  The untoward answer:  It is to suffer with Him.  Allow me to repeat that assertion.  In order to enjoy an especially deep fellowship with Christ, we are called to suffer for His sake.  This aspect for encountering Jesus Christ personally (even mystically as this comprises proper Christian mysticism) is easily lost amidst the other great teachings of Paul in this most pregnant passage.

Paul exclaims in chapter three of his letter to the Philippians, that He counted all his claims to salvation — more properly, his claims to righteousness — “but dung.”  He notes — perhaps proudly — that as a Pharisee he was even blameless in keeping the law (no small feat to be sure).  Instead, Paul emphasizes how he then had a very different goal.  Once set free from seeking the righteousness that comes from keeping the law, his goal was to win, obtain, or “lay hold” of Christ.  And his definition of “laying hold” is fascinating: “Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ” (verse 8).[3]  From his particular phrasing, we can understand that the knowledge of Christ was his primary goal — the righteousness he might have acquired through keeping the law was actually a barrier that he chose to put behind him. His goal now was to “win Christ.”  In other words, the righteousness of Christ was far superior to a righteousness acquired through keeping the law. Paul could have found satisfaction in reckoning their accomplishment, and no doubt at one point in his younger life he did.  But he ultimately rejected this path to godliness.  He discovered that it was an empty achievement.  Why would he think this?  Because the righteousness of Christ includes the encounter with the person of Christ.  The ultimate prize to be obtained was more than just winning the reward of righteousness — it was winning the reality of Christ Himself, experiencing the person of Jesus Christ who came to live our hearts.

Paul states this with some of the most sublime words in all of his writing:  “That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death.” (Philippians 3:10)

It is a most unexpected and frankly, unexplainable transaction.  In being conformed to the image of His death, the life of Christ is enlivened within us.  In choosing to forsake all that we value in worldly goods, to forsake the approving status among our peers, to give up the motive of “making it big” in our culture or community, means that we win Christ.  Christ comes to dwell within us more richly.  Not only does that “liveliness” provide an exposition of how Jesus Christ manifests Himself in our lives, His presence becomes a deeper, conscious awareness within our spirits.  By dying the death to self, we come to understand and experience the power of the resurrection, a power that enables us to live a supernatural life in conformance to the purposes which Christ has set forth for each of us individually, a plan established before the age began. (Psalm 139:16)[4]  By opening ourselves to the fellowship of His sufferings, we commune with Christ in a more personal way.  “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21), not an acquisition of worldly goods nor even the rewards of the life hereafter.  To be conformed to the death of Christ, to die to self-will and self-seeking aggrandizement, to give ourselves over to the will of God, is to enjoy a special sense of Christ’s presence within ourselves.  We come to experience “the fellowship of His sufferings.”

To live, zao in the Greek, means “to breathe, to enjoy life, to squeeze every ounce of goodness from what life has to offer.”  Gain is twice simply translated here in the King James Version as “advantage but is also translated in another verse of Paul’s as “filthy lucre” (Titus 1:11) Used in that context, Paul speaks of teachers who teach things that “subvert whole houses” seeking to acquire wealth for wealth’s sake.  (Note: Lucre is an old English term for obtaining wealth in a sordid or dishonest way).  Thus, Paul is saying that the best things in life, things which might be coveted, are obtained by dying to one’s self.  He is also saying that the gain promised by those who teach “prosperity” is a gain to be despised, not sought.  And those who teach this form of godliness as a means of great gain deserve the most extreme condemnation for they are misleading the children of God.

Ultimately, this form of self-abdication, of renouncing our claims to what we think we deserve, of putting others and their interests ahead of ourselves, and especially putting the will of God for our lives ahead of what we would will for our lives, is one of the most crucial meanings of coming to terms with the sufferings of the Savior during this very special week.  I pray that you will find out what it means for you to become “conformed to His death” that you may experience “the power of His resurrection” and the “fellowship of His sufferings” — for of such things were we predestined from before the foundation of the world, actions within which we should find our purpose. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10). As Paul says in Romans, chapter 8:  “For whom He did foreknow, he predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son” — a manner of conforming that promises much more than we can ever expect or imagine in exchange for what we give up.  “That in the ages to come He might shew the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:8)

There is much to be gained by winning Christ, now and in the age to come.

 


 

[1]“For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment” (2 Peter 2:4)

[2]Bonhoeffer, Dietrich (2012-08-07). The Cost of Discipleship (p. 102). Touchstone. Kindle Edition.

[3] The Greek word that Paul uses on several occasions is epilambanomai which means to seize, or grab onto with both hands.  In modern day vernacular, it would be akin to “holding onto for dear life” when riding a bull or a bucking horse.  It is the word used by the gospels when Jesus grabbed ahold of Peter to keep him from sinking into the waters at that moment when impetuous Peter attempts to walk on the water with Jesus.

 [4]“Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”