We share in the fellowship of His suffering when we identify so fully with His broken body and shed blood, that we give our lives to share Him with others.
that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, (Philippians 3:10)
This is such a powerful verse, but one which seems to confuse many believers who somehow assume that the ‘fellowship of His sufferings’ mentioned here means we should pray for suffering. The understanding is that we suffer with Christ when we suffer, so that’s what we should long for. It’s a foolish and deceptive contradiction of the real import of Paul’s words. In fact, it’s an outright denial of what took place at the cross. The absolute truth is that none of us could endure the suffering Jesus did. That’s why He endured it – so we wouldn’t have to. Why, then, would we even consider attempting to, or praying for, something that has already been accomplished once and for all? Yet many remain in bondage to feelings of inadequacy because they don’t have it in them to pray for suffering. It’s both a tragedy and a travesty.
Suffering is not the fellowship of His suffering.
We tend to try to interpret and understand the Word with literal human intellect. It’s absolutely true that all of us will encounter suffering of some kind. We live in a fallen world and we’re in a constant battle with it, self, and the powers of darkness. Suffering can take many forms. It can be physical, emotional, or mental and can even be spiritual at times if we endure, for example, a crisis of faith. But this is ‘literal’ suffering, not the fellowship of His suffering. It’s a manifest and tangible event, measurable in terms of time and natural impact. We may not ‘see’ the emotions, for example, but they are real and identifiable, a literal part of who we are. Suffering comes through different causes, some of which may be spiritual, but is always definable as a fact in the visible, natural world.
Romans 5:3 seems to confuse the issue. And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance. Other versions say ‘rejoice in our sufferings.’ This does not mean that we rejoice because we are suffering. It means that we rejoice because we know that, although we are suffering, it will lead to perseverance. It’s not the suffering we rejoice in but the fact that we know the good that will ultimately come out of it, because all things work to the good of those who love Him. The Bible also reminds us that we will never suffer anything that Jesus didn’t suffer too. That’s to encourage us. It doesn’t mean we suffer as He did – remember, He suffered for the entire world at one time. What it does mean is that we have the assurance that He has gone before to give us the victory.
The fellowship of His suffering is identification.
Things must always be understood in context. The fellowship of His suffering is sandwiched in between His resurrection and His death. There is a reason for that, just as there is for Paul reversing the order here. To understand the fellowship, we must look to the other things as well. Here, resurrection comes first, because in the bigger scheme of things, Paul is talking about the final resurrection as well as our spiritual resurrection in Jesus. When he uses the word ‘know,’ Paul is talking intimate knowledge. He’s talking identification. What he’s effectively saying is ‘I want to know it as if it personally happened to me’ because the power of the cross lies in identification. Paul is explaining that Jesus fully identified with Paul – and us – so that when He rose from the dead, Paul rose from the dead. Identification means we are inseparable.
The same truth applies to Christ’s death. To be conformed to His death is to be dead like Jesus was – the old man, the one Jesus took to the cross, died with Him. Our lives, after salvation, must conform to the principle that we died with Christ, once and for all. Only when we fully understand the vital principle of identification can we comprehend what is meant by the fellowship of His suffering. Fellowship implies identification. It is the coming together of ‘like minds’ or being united in a common belief. When we fellowship with others, we stand on common ground. We are brought together and held together by things that are important to all of us. Fellowship also implies an indissoluble bond, something not easily broken and forged by common experience. Spiritual fellowship of any kind is spiritual identification with the other.
How we share the fellowship of His suffering.
The first way is that of identification. We accept by faith that through a supernatural work of God, we are fully identified with Christ and He with us through the cross, His death, and His resurrection. In God’s eyes, we are one and the same. But there is another way, and that can be explained through the metaphor of the bread and wine – His broken body and shed blood. Every time we partake of communion, we share in the fellowship of His suffering. We recognise, acknowledge, and give thanks for the suffering He endured on our behalf. It’s our reminder not only that He will return and that we will be raised up in the final resurrection, but that His suffering was for us. When we share the bread and the wine, we share His suffering by reminding ourselves of the brutal beauty of the cross.
The focus, here, is on the sharing. Every member of the body partakes. All come from the same place and all have equal standing before God, no matter who they are. The body and blood of Jesus has no favourites. It’s a humbling reminder that all have sinned, and that without Jesus, we would all suffer the consequences. We’re reminded, too, that there are no degrees of sin. What Jesus did, He did for all. The fellowship of His suffering is the thread that binds believers together. It’s a supernatural power that transcends our worldly considerations. Whether we’re literally suffering in this world or not, the fellowship of His suffering is our gracious reminder that He has gone before, that He has done all, and that there will be an end because He has paid in full and it is finished. Once again, it’s joyful identification.
The outworking of the fellowship of His suffering.
As with all things of God, this isn’t limited to the life of the believer. Jesus suffered for all mankind, not only those who believe. If we share in the fellowship of His suffering, we must also live it. Our purpose must become His purpose – to reach all. Sharing means sharing, not keeping the benefits for ourselves. Jesus gave all to all and for all, and that’s part of our fellowship with Him. With God, if there is a breaking, it’s always for the purpose of giving out. Think of the loaves and fish. The practical outworking of sharing in the fellowship of His suffering is that we must identify so completely with Jesus that we must give out as He did. If we accept that He was broken for us, then we are also broken with Him for others. Jesus did the suffering. We must do the sharing.
Sweet Lord, thank You for reminding us of Your broken body and shed blood. Help us to rejoice when suffering comes our way, just as Your Word teaches, and to learn from it. Most of all, Lord, teach us to fully share in the fellowship of Your suffering. Help us to rejoice in the full message of the cross, and keep us from deception in this. Forgive us for overlooking Your grace and mercy, and help us to share, in fellowship with You, the truth of Your suffering so the world may know You love and sacrifice.