The Fellowship of His Sufferings

A Devotional Study

"That I may know him...and the fellowship of his sufferings". (Phil.3.10). A friendship grows with the passing years. As two people learn more about each other and share each other's experiences their love for each other deepens. Paul discovered this in his fellowship with Jesus, as he followed in his Master's steps. James calls attention to the example of suffering which the prophets gave us, and in Hebrews 11 we have a list of Old Testament heroes who suffered for their faith. The prophets declared that Messiah would suffer shame and death and he is thus spoken of in Isaiah 53.3, "He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief". All who associate with Jesus in his mission to the world must share the same conditions of humiliation and sacrifice. This is not just a willingness to deny oneself a few luxuries and be patient with the normal troubles and ailments of life. Suffering for Christ may include those things, but it must ultimately mean much more.

Jesus was born into the hard Roman world and often the peasant folk had a lean time making ends meet. From his earliest years our Lord must have been familiar with the grief of his fellowmen. His ministry of healing would bring him into greater touch with the weakness and frailties of humanity, and the Gospel records reflect his mingling with and sympathy for the sorrowful and outcast members of society. He was contradicted, ostracised and hunted. The agony of the garden, the hypocrisy and humiliation of the trial, the fatigue and rough handling on the way to Calvary, were all part of a bitter cup which He drank to the dregs. Not only did He suffer physical pain and mental anguish for himself, but his pure and sympathetic heart grieved for the suffering and sin of the whole world.

The witness which the disciples gave after Pentecost rapidly brought persecution from the religious leaders who had been responsible for the death of Jesus. The power of the Gospel message caused many Jews to repent and believe in the Lord. The priests and lawyers soon realised that instead of crushing the new sect by putting its leader to death, it had suddenly obtained new life and influence. Not only were the members of the early Church willing to suffer for their Master but they did it with joy as reflected in Luke's words, "They departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name" (Acts 5.41) This. Spirit of joy, derived from sharing their Lord's sufferings, continued with the Christian church as it spread to Gentile lands, as shown by the experience of Paul and Silas in the gaol at Philippi, where they sang praises to God during the night. Paul knew the cost of the witness of the early Church before he became a Christian, but the visions he had received from his crucified Saviour were too strong a call and he followed the path of martyrdom. Eventually he turned his back on the comfort and serenity of his home town of Tarsus and set out along the great highways which led to Rome, stopping only to tell the tidings of great joy which must be told to all people.

The joy of the early disciples was a feature of the Christian life which neither the Jews nor the Gentiles could understand. They cheerfully faced torture and death for Christ's sake, and nothing would make them forsake their trust in him. They knew that their Master was with them during the actual experiences, they knew that He sympathised with their afflictions because He had trodden the same thorny path, and they were able to say with Paul, "our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding…weight of glory" (2 Cor.4.17).

What is the purpose of it all? The prophet in Isaiah 53.5 gives us the foremost reason, because, as the Saviour of the world, he was, "wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed". He was announced by John the Baptist as "the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1.29). Jesus spoke of himself as the good shepherd who was to give his life for the sheep (John 10.11). Soon after Pentecost Peter addressed a large crowd in the Temple area and told them that there was no other name given among men whereby they could be saved (Acts 4.12). Later Peter wrote, "For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit" (1 Pet.3.18, R.S.V.). In his long discussion of the resurrection Paul wrote to the brethren at Corinth that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures (1 Cor.15.3). The writer to the Hebrews speaks of him suffering without the gate in order to sanctify the people with his blood (Heb.13.12). The New Testament writers bear united testimony to the purpose of Christ's suffering and death, that it was for the redemption of mankind from death.

The experiences through which our Lord passed as Saviour prepared him for his work as mediator, reconciling men to God. The writer to the Hebrews describes him, learning "obedience through what he suffered" and being made, "perfect through suffering". (Heb.5.8; 2.10, R.S.V.) Jesus was perfect in that He was sinless and obedient before He came to earth, but until He came to live among men He had no personal contact with the conditions in which men lived. He had not felt the consequences of sin. "For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning" (Heb.4.15, R.S.V.). Those who follow Jesus, share his suffering, and by so doing become like him in his compassion and patience for a sinful world. It will mean betrayal, scourging and contradiction, but it will prepare them for a place beside him in his work as earth's future King. Any denial or retreat from this aspect of our fellowship with Christ must necessarily find us unready for his priestly work in healing and rehabilitating a broken and sinful human race (2 Tim.2.11,12).

In the economy of God's purpose, He has used the wrath of man to perfect his workmanship and He restrains that which would cause harm (Psa.76.10). So it is that our experiences in the world, although they may seem bitter, are part of our chastisement and are a mark of our sonship to God (Heb.12.5,6 & Prov.3.11,12). The same thought is conveyed in another way by Jesus in the parable of the vine, when He said , "every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit". The fiery trials cause our faith to strengthen, and we emerge stronger and purified, thereby making us more fitted for his service.

Just before his death, Jesus asked the sons of Zebedee whether they were able to drink of the cup which He was about to drink. That question to James and John is reiterated to every Christian through the words of the Gospel. Our answer to that question gives evidence of our allegiance and love for him. It is in the trial of our faith that we learn to trust him and depend upon his guidance and strength. It is after we have been through the valley of tears and humiliation, when we have felt the biting sting of this world's scorn and rejection, that we draw closer in fellowship to the "lover of our soul". "If we are his children we share his treasures, and all that Christ claims as his will belong to all of us as well! Yes, if we share in his suffering we shall certainly share in his glory". (Romans 8.17 Phillips).