Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Unlikely Apostle Pt. 4: “The Fellowship of His Sufferings…”

Anything that is truly wonderful in our lives is going to come with its share of difficulties. Seeking to graduate from college, being married, parenting children, working in ministry… each of these amazing endeavors have a way of bringing us to our wits end at times.

At various points in my life, I’ve found myself crying out to God, “I don’t know how I can keep going on like this!”

I think part of the reason for these breaking points is due to TV programs and movies, which have convinced some part of my subconscious that tension is supposed to be resolved in 23 minutes, or an-hour-and-a-half if it’s a really intense situation. Another variable that has subtly shaped my worldview has been a steady, low-grade dose of teaching throughout my life that Christians are not actually blessed when we suffer for righteousness.

We always feel blessed when we win, blessed when we’re first, blessed when we’re promoted, blessed when we’re adored, blessed when we’re full, blessed when we’re happy, blessed when we buy new things, and blessed when we’re safe.

Conversely, we struggle to feel blessed when we’re defeated, blessed when we’re last, blessed when we lose a job, blessed when we’re hated, blessed when we’re hungry, blessed when we are mourning, blessed when we are broke, and blessed when we are attacked.

Like the Apostles in the gospels, we struggle to believe the simple words of Christ about suffering.

However, have you noticed the radical shift that happened in the Apostles’ lives after Pentecost? Have you observed the drastic change in their approach toward suffering after the Holy Spirit came on them in power?

Before Pentecost, they are passionate about avoiding personal suffering, and quite willing to cause the enemies of God to suffer. After Pentecost, though, they hold prayer meetings where they praise God for the opportunity to suffer for Him and see enemies of the cross become believers as a result.

The Apostle Paul seems to have actually sought out opportunities to suffer for Christ from time to time. He even bragged about the extensive horrors he experienced for the cause of the gospel.

Paul explains his perspective on suffering for Christ in Philippians 3.

I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.Philippians 3:8-11

According to Paul, there is a certain fellowship, a partnership, a communion we experience with Jesus when we suffer for Him. According to Paul, suffering for our Lord is one of the primary ways we get to know Him better. And the early Christians believed in the same path toward partaking in these Christological blessings.

True knowledge, then, consists in the understanding of Christ. Paul terms this the wisdom of God hidden in a mystery, which, “the natural man will not receive,” the doctrine of the cross. … For the truth is unsophisticated… as the same apostle declares, being easy to comprehend by those who are obedient. For it renders us likened to Christ, if we experience “the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings.” … For truly the first thing is to deny one’s self and to follow Christ; and those who do this are borne onward to perfection, having fulfilled all their Teacher’s will, becoming sons of God by spiritual regeneration, and heirs of the kingdom of heaven. – Irenaeus 180CE, Volume 1, p. 969 [CD-ROM]

If we experience fellowship with Christ through suffering with Him, the first thing we must do is deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow Him. We must crucify our fleshly desires and choose the Spirit. Our flesh naturally avoids suffering and seeks the broad, easy road, which ultimately leads to destruction. The Spirit, which yearns for us to commune with Jesus, calls us to love Jesus and obey His voice by His power, even if it seems foolish to us at first.

Winning feels good. So does receiving a promotion, being applauded, gorging ourselves at Thanksgiving, and sleeping at night without any fear of having our houses broken into. But sometimes, good is the greatest enemy of the best.

Paul met Jesus. Paul saw the glory of God. Paul was caught up into the third heaven. And Paul came back saying that all the good things of this world are a four-letter-word compared to the greatness of knowing Jesus Christ our Lord.

Times of suffering may bring us to our wits end. That’s true. But perhaps we can reframe those breaking points as opportunities to fellowship with Jesus like we couldn’t otherwise. Perhaps they are opportunities to know Christ and find joy, hope and peace that actually do surpass understanding.

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