The work of Christ on the cross is unique. It is unparalleled and can never be repeated. What Jesus did in dying for our sins no other person could ever do. So, then, why does Paul suggest that he can participate in the sufferings of Christ, “becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10)? As strange as it may seem our earthly suffering does allow us to experience a measure of Christ’s sufferings, and this serves us well in sanctification.
Our goal in this life is to be ever increasingly identified with Christ. We are united to Him through faith in His finished work, and we are being conformed to His image progressively (2 Cor. 3:18). Suffering is one means of this increasing identification.
Paul expresses his earnest desire to “know Christ.” Clearly the Apostle already knows Jesus. He has been commissioned by Christ as the Apostle to the Gentiles. So, Jesus is hardly a stranger to him. Yet, he has something clearly distinct in mind as he writes those words – he is seeking a greater intimacy with Jesus. Greater personal intimacy comes, for us as it did for Paul, as our story is interwoven with Christ’s story. In particular, Christians are called to participate, at some level, in the death and resurrection of Christ. This is what our Baptism points to (Rom. 6:4). Paul adds here that we are to experience something of Christ’s sufferings. Suffering unites us to Christ, not in that fundamental positional sense, but instead invites us into some fresh experience of “fellowship” (as some translations of Phil. 3:10 say). Our experience of suffering gives us a greater sense of solidarity with Christ. In fact, in 2 Corinthians 4 Paul indicates that our experience of affliction manifests the “life of Christ…in our body” (v. 10). Suffering gives us a unique intimacy and connection with Jesus.
There is another possible angle to explore on this issue of experiencing a measure of the sufferings of Christ. If the first perspective points to our solidarity and union with Jesus through suffering, the second points us towards eschatological hope. Paul speaks in Colossians 1:24 of “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” This is a pretty bold statement, and as Eric Johnson has said, “If anyone but an apostle had said this, we might call it heresy” (God & Soul Care, 258). Paul is speaking in terms of eschatological fulfillment.
It was commonly believed and understood, through the Old Testament and into the New, that the arrival of the Messiah would come both with the dawn of a new creation and a period of persecution. So, in Romans 8:17 Paul connects our position as “co-heirs with Christ” to our sharing in His sufferings. Suffering moves us forward towards the realization of the New Creation. Johnson further explains:
[Paul] thought the sufferings of believers were themselves harbingers of the age to come (Rom. 8:17), because there is a “definitive measure of affliction be be endured in the last days” (O’Brien, 2000, p. 80). Consequently, Paul’s suffering and, by extension, the suffering of all God’s people in this age participates in and brings to a completion the affliction of Christ and points ahead to eventual resurrection. (259)
All our experiences of pain, sorrow, and persecution in this life are moving us forward in God’s grand redemptive plan to bring a new world into existence. Our suffering participates in the prophetic plan, just as Christ’s suffering was part of a larger prophetic plan. It is through many hardships that we enter the Kingdom of God (Acts 14:22), and therefore hardship is a necessary part of its realization.
Suffering, while always painful, is not pointless. It is part of God’s design to bring about both our experience of fellowship with Christ and to bring about the New Heaven and the New Earth. God gives value, in other words, to the horrible pain of our suffering. We must do our best to keep this perspective before us.