According to many verses in the New Testament, followers of Jesus are called to some level of suffering. That is not in question. What is in question is the nature of that suffering. In what ways are we called to suffer as disciples of the Master?
Let’s take a look at just a few of the New Testament texts that speak of our call to suffer for the Lord (or that simply speak of the fact that we will suffer in this world):
The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs — heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in His sufferings in order that we may also share in His glory. (Romans 8:16-17)
For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for Him. (Philippians 1:29)
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps. (1 Peter 2:21)
And the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. (1 Peter 5:10)
What kind of sufferings are we called to? Are we called to suffer sickness and disease and calamity and disaster? Certainly not. These things are part of the general suffering of the human race, and while we may not be exempt from all such suffering, the wonderful promises God has given us offer us healing and deliverance and protection. So, suffering for Jesus does not mean getting in a car wreck!
What then does it mean to “share in His sufferings”? For the most part, it refers to suffering persecution and opposition and hardship for the gospel, and references to this are found in almost every book of the New Testament. Here are just a few examples:
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10-12)
“A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!” (Matthew 10:24-25)
“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated Me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed My teaching, they will obey yours also” (John 15:18-20).
In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. (2 Timothy 3:12)
Persecution and hardship for the gospel are explicitly related to sharing in Jesus’ sufferings in 1 Peter 4:12-16: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.”
When the apostles were flogged for preaching the good news about Messiah Jesus, Acts 5:41 records that, “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” They were being identified with their Savior; they were being treated the same way their Master had been treated; they were sharing in His sufferings!
So, when people hate us because we are identified with Jesus, when people attack us and persecute us because we bear His name, when we lose our jobs or our families or our freedom or even our lives for the gospel, we are sharing in the sufferings of the Lord. To this we are called, and for this we should rejoice! As Paul explained, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
But there is another aspect to sharing in the Messiah’s sufferings, and it may be included in Paul’s words in Philippians 3:10-11: “I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, becoming like Him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”
Here, Paul is not simply speaking of being persecuted and rejected for the gospel. I believe he is also speaking about sharing in the Messiah’s pain – His intense burden and love for a dying world and a hurting church (cf. Romans 8:26-27; Galatians 4:19) – and the pain of conforming to His death, saying no to all other claims and voices and demands, dying to self and living only for the Master. As expressed by the commentator Gerald F. Hawthorne, “To this end Paul, although indeed dead to sin by virtue of Christ’s death for him, nevertheless, by his own continuous, conscious choice, was prepared to take this fact seriously, to take sides with Christ against himself, to bring his practice in the world in line with his position in Christ, to renounce his own selfish desires and say yes to Christ, who was calling him to conform himself to his death by daily taking up his cross in self-sacrificing service to others.” Or, in Paul’s own words in another context: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).