Good Friday represents the cornerstone of our Christian faith: the event where the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, of infinite value, suffered and died in the place of wretched, obstinate sinners so that we could be adopted as co-heirs of God the Father. It’s not easy narrowing that down to something that can be addressed in a short message.
As I was pondering this topic, my thoughts turned to Paul’s statement in Philippians 3:10, where he says, “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.”
Fueled by that statement, I would like to explore what it means for us to share in the cross of Christ.
Sometimes I have a tendency to view Good Friday as primarily a time to look back, and remember what Christ did for me in the past, and be grateful for the forgiveness of my sins, and thankful that I can go to heaven. And certainly, we should do that. But, we should not fall into the trap of viewing the cross as simply the means of becoming a Christian, as though the cross is just the starting point, and then we move on from there. Our continued affiliation and participation in the cross of Christ is also the means by which we live a Christ-centered life. Our unity with Christ is a unity of sharing with him in the cross.
There are three ways that we share in what Christ accomplished on the cross:
- We share in his suffering.
- We share in his death.
- Because we share in his death, we also share in his resurrection.
We share in Christ’s Suffering
Let’s look first, then, at what it means to share in Christ’s suffering. I already mentioned Philippians 3:10, where Paul said he wants “to know Christ … and the fellowship of sharing in his suffering.” Just to drive the point home, let me read a few other passages that reiterate this idea of sharing in Christ’s suffering.
Philippians 1:29 – “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.”
Romans 8:17 – “Now if we are children (God’s children, that is), 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.”
1 Peter 2:21 – “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”
1 Peter 4:13 – “But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.”
To me, it’s a little unsettling to look at the many verses that talk about suffering, and see that suffering isn’t just inevitable, but it’s actually necessary. Not that we earn or merit any reward because of our suffering, and not that we in any way make up for our sin. It is simply that experiencing suffering is part of what it means to follow Christ.
Part of being an imitator of Christ, is experiencing suffering. Christ was a “suffering servant.” As Isaiah 53:3 says, “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.” Part of being a Christian is being like Christ. So, if Christ was a “man of sorrows,” “familiar with suffering,” then in order for us to be like him, it is necessary that we also must be acquainted with suffering.
Since we’re going to experience suffering, we need to be prepared for it. We need to prepare for suffering before we experience it, not wait until suffering strikes, and then attempt to handle it appropriately. When you’re talking to someone who is going through a time of suffering, that is not the best time to tell them how they should respond. You may have the best of intentions, and you may be speaking truth, but you may be received as someone offering spiritual platitudes, when what the person really needs at that moment is a shoulder to cry on and a helping hand. If we haven’t learned how to respond to suffering before suffering strikes, the suffering will be that much harder to handle.
So, what are some ways that we may experience suffering?
First let me exclude some categories that are not relevant to sharing in Christ’s suffering. For one, I’m not referring to penance or self-inflicted punishment; that is unnecessary suffering that someone might subject themselves to for improper reasons. Another type of suffering that we’re not talking about is suffering the consequences of our own wrong doing.
I read 1 Peter 2:21 already, but let me read verses 19-20 also:
“For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.
The type of suffering that we share with Christ is unjust suffering. I have divided the unjust suffering we may experience into two categories: One is suffering as a direct result of our faith. The other is suffering simply as a consequence of living in a fallen world.
Suffering as a result of our faith
In the first category, suffering as a result of our faith, there are two subcategories.
Persecution from those hostile to Christ
The first, is suffering persecution from those who are hostile to Christ. Much of the suffering the apostles and early disciples experienced was this type of suffering. This is what Jesus referred to in the Sermon on the Mount.
Matthew 5:11 – “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”
Christians in countries around the world suffer persecution like this simply because they are followers of Jesus, and people who hate Jesus will also hate his followers.
Although we are relatively free from this type of persecution right now in America, there may come a day when we see more of this type of persecution. While we don’t yet suffer the blatant persecution that Christians in some countries face, we may still experience persecution on some level from those hostile to Jesus. Maybe it comes in the form of someone who talks down to you or says bad things about you because of your faith. Maybe it’s a neighbor who purposely shows disregard for your property because you’re one of those “Christians.”
How should we respond when we encounter persecution like this? Just like we are to follow Christ in our expectation of suffering, we are also to follow his example in our response to persecution.
As 1 Peter 2:23 says, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”
We should not demand our rights, or seek to get even. We can accept the injustice, because it helps us identify with Christ, and we know that God will make all things right.
Consequences of taking a moral stand
The second way that we may experience suffering as a result of our faith is by doing the right thing even when that may expose us to undesirable consequences.
Some have experienced this type of suffering by being arrested for standing in the way of allowing abortions to take place. Other examples might include telling the truth when a small lie could save your hide; or obeying the law when you could easily get away with something that would give you a huge advantage. Instead, you tell the truth; you abide by the law; you refuse to get involved in something immoral, and it costs you. When we sacrifice our time, energy, or money for the cause of Christ, we may experience suffering as a result, but that suffering is part of what unites us with Christ.
In addition to suffering because of our faith, we also experience suffering that is simply the result of living in a fallen world. The way that we respond to this suffering can also be a means of identifying with Christ.
Examples of this type of suffering might include physical pain and sickness, accidents, natural disasters, financial hardship, the loss of a loved one, and other emotional burdens like depression or other forms of mental illness.
Excluding, again, suffering that may be the result of our own wrong choices; when we are intentional about enduring random calamity for the sake of Christ, it is a means of identifying with him.
This is how James could say, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4). To be “mature and complete, not lacking anything,” is to be like Christ, and that requires suffering. Knowing this, we can be joyful in the midst of suffering.
We share in Christ’s Death
Not only do we share in the suffering that Christ experienced, we also share in his death.
Galatians 2:20 says, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
As human beings, we are both physical and spiritual creatures. You might say that sharing in Christ’s suffering is a means of physical connection with Christ, whereas sharing in his death is a spiritual connection.
What does it mean that we have died with Christ? There are two different ways of looking at our spiritual death.
Paul says in Galatians 6:14, “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.”
In one sense, the sin that used to be our master is put to death. In another sense, our old self, who was a slave to sin, is put to death.
Using the analogy of a master and a slave, there are two ways to sever their relationship. Either the master dies, or the slave dies. If the master is dead, he obviously can’t boss around the slave. If the slave is dead, he obviously can’t obey his former master.
Sin becomes dead to us; our sin nature is put to death, so it no longer controls us.
On the one hand, our previous master (the world, the flesh, or our sinful nature) has died; and a dead master is no master at all; a dead master can no longer control us.
Romans 8:9 says, “You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you.”
We used to be controlled by the sinful nature, but not anymore:
Galatians 5:24 – “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.”
We die to sin; a dead man cannot obey his former master.
However, in another sense, our old master still beckons to us.
1 Peter 2:11 says, “I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.”
Although our sin nature is put to death, ending its mastery of us, we are still at war. The way that we war against these sinful desires is to count ourselves dead to their influence.
Colossians 2:20 – “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules?”
A slave who dies can’t obey his master anymore. So why do we still obey the rules of the world, if our relationship with the world was severed through our death?
Romans 6:6 says that “our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.”
We used to be slaves to sin. But when a slave dies the old master can no longer command obedience. Our “old self,” the person we were prior to conversion, is dead now. We should act in accordance to the reality that our old self is dead. We should not drag the dead old man around with us, prop it up, or act like it is still alive.
We share in Christ’s resurrection
Finally, because we share in Christ’s suffering and death, we also share in his life. His resurrection gives us spiritual life now and forevermore, and guarantees the resurrection and renewal of our bodies as well.
Romans 6:4-5 – “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.”
Continuing on to verse 8 – “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”
We share in Christ’s victory because we share in His death.
I started out mentioning Philippians 3:10, where Paul said he wants “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,” (continuing in verse 11) “and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”
So let us look forward to Easter and the celebration of Christ’s resurrection and the promise of our own resurrection with rejoicing that we share in his suffering, that we share in his death, and that we share in his life.