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The Foundation and Purpose of Christian Suffering

In Philippians 1:12-13 Paul writes, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.” Verse 13 is especially challenging in the Greek. It reads,

ὥστε τοὺς δεσμούς μου φανεροὺς ἐν Χριστῷ γενέσθαι ἐν ὅλῳ τῷ πραιτωρίῳ καὶ τοῖς λοιποῖς πάσιν.

More literally: “So that, my chains revealed/manifest/known in Christ have become to the entire praetorium and to all the rest.”

The difficulty lies in how the datival phrases relate to the verb γενέσθαι and to each other. The phrase ἐν Χριστῷ (in Christ) is especially awkward, seeing that it follows φανεροὺς (revealed, manifest, known). Does ἐν Χριστῷ describe the way that Paul’s imprisonment has been made known, that it has been revealed in Christ? Are Paul’s chains somehow “in Christ”? Is ἐν Χριστῷ being used instrumentally, adverbially, or in some other sense? In other words, what has become known and how?

One option is to understand Paul to be saying that the imperial guard has come to know that he is literally imprisoned because of his religious affiliation. Paul’s imprisonment is related to his ministry. Paul even notes how some of the brothers are preaching Christ out of envy, rivalry, and selfish ambition in order to increase his affliction in prison (Phil 1:15-17). Paul’s sufferings must then be related to the gospel ministry.

But Paul may be introducing intentional ambiguity, using δεσμούς μου (my chains) in two ways. It is true that he is literally in chains for being a Christian, but it is also true that he is a bondservant of Christ (Rom 1:1; Gal 1:10). In one sense Paul’s chains belong to the imperial guard, but in another, even more significant sense, Paul’s chains belong to Christ Jesus. Having been delivered from the power of sin and death, Paul has been given to a new master; he is a slave of righteousness (Rom 6:18). He has been inseparably bound to Christ by the Spirit, who conforms his people to Christ’s image (Rom 8:29).

There are two important aspects to Paul’s understanding of salvation: being united to Christ and being conformed to the image of the one to whom we are united. Lest we fall prey to the same error that besets many televangelists, we must be careful not to truncate this latter aspect. The image to which believers are being conformed is not merely the glorious image we see in Christ’s resurrection. It also involves suffering and death. Seeing these complementary aspects of salvation—union with Christ and christomorphic image conformity—we should then come to recognize the inextricable link between Christ, his personal sufferings, and his mystical body, the Church. This is why Paul speaks so frequently of his sufferings as the very sufferings of Christ. Consider the following:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Cor 4:7-12)

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Phil 3:7-11)

It’s clear that Paul understood his sufferings to be more than mere representations of Christ’s sufferings or consequences of religious affiliation. Indeed, his sufferings were Christ’s sufferings, because Paul’s entire life is characterized by his union with Christ. He declares this emphatically in Galatians 2:20,

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:20)

Christ is most basic to Paul’s life, not simply as its source, but as its comprehensive, vivifying principle. Amazingly, this is true for all those who receive and rest upon Jesus Christ alone for salvation. And so whenever we consider Christian suffering, we must understand it within this grid. It is patterned after the life of our Lord (cf. Phil 2:5-11), and therefore is characterized by suffering unto glory. Christian suffering is neither ultimate nor meaningless, but comes with an end in view—both chronologically and teleologically. It terminates at the return of Jesus Christ, and it culminates in being raised unto glory to worship him forever.


Nota bene: Perhaps the most important thing I’ve read on Christian suffering is “The Usefulness of the Cross” by Dr. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. It will be a tough read for most Christians, but it’s beautiful and richly rewarding.

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