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Vol. XIV • 1992

Sharing Christ's Sufferings and Glory:
The Church's Calling Before Christ's Return

Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.

Over the inter-advental period in its entirety, from beginning to end, a fundamental aspect of the church's existence is (to be) "suffering with Christ"; nothing, the New Testament teaches, is more basic to its identity than that,

Two passages, both in Paul, are especially instructive concerning this reality, Strictly speaking, they are autobiographical, but the immediate and broader context of both shows that they intend to provide a paradigm, not only for other apostles or his own generation but for all believers until Jesus comes.

2 Corinthians 4:7--"But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us."

"This treasure in jars of clay" graphically captures the tension at the heart of this statement and of the apostle's overall understanding of the nature of Christian existence between the resurrection and the return of Christ. "This treasure" is the Gospel or, better, the content of the Gospel--the glory-light of the (exalted) Christ (v. 4), the eschatological, new-creation glory of God, revealed in Christ (v. 6), "Clay jars," in contrast, are believers--in all of their mortality and fragility. We have "this treasure," Paul says, but for now, until Jesus comes, we have it only in the "clay jars" that we are. Or, as he puts it elsewhere (Romans 6:12-13), believers are "alive from the dead," already resurrected, but they are that only "in the mortal body," as they are (in that sense) still unresurrected.

Verses 8 and 9 expand on this fundamental, resurrected/not-resurrected "dialectic" of the Christian life--by means of four pairs of pointedly formulated contrasts: as "clay jars," believers are "hard pressed on every side," "perplexed," "persecuted," and "struck down"; nevertheless (note the fourfold repetition of "but not")--as possessing "this treasure"--they are "not crushed," "not in despair," "not abandoned," and "not destroyed."

Verse 10 further describes this reality in summary fashion: we (believers) carry around in the body "the dying of Jesus" (nekrosis here has in view death as an activity or process) so that "the life of Jesus ("this treasure") may be manifested "in our body" ("in clay jars"). Verse 11 closely parallels verse 10 with slight explanatory variations: "always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh,"

Even from this brief analysis of the passage there should be little difficulty in recognizing that in the summary description in verses 10-11 suffering (characterized as "the dying of Jesus" and "always being given over to death for Jesus' sake") and "the life of Jesus" are not separate sectors of Christian experience, as if the latter by addition, somehow balances off and compensates for the former, Rather, Paul intends to say, as long as believers are in "the mortal body," "the life of Jesus" manifests itself as "the dying of Jesus"; the latter describes the existence mode of the former. Until the resurrection of the body at his return Christ's resurrection-life finds expression in the church's sufferings (and, as will become clear presently, nowhere else--so far as the existence and calling of the church are concerned); the locus of Christ's ascension-power is the suffering church.

This, it should not be overlooked, involves an evangelistic or missiological reality of fundamental proportions--"death is at work in us, but life is at work in you" (v. 12; cf. v. 7) "that this all-surpassing power may from God and not from us").

Philippians 3:10--"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."

This aspiration expresses essentially the same idea as 2 Corinthians 4:10-11. In the immediate context Paul is concerned for "the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus (his) Lord" (v, 8), knowledge that comes from being "found in him" (v. 9), that is, from being united with Christ. Verse 10, then, brings into view a fundamental component of this rich, experiential union-knowledge.

A key to the intended impact of verse 10 is to recognize that both "ands" (following "Christ" and "resurrection") are not simply coordinating but explanatory; they do not merely connect, they explicate. In step-wise fashion Paul progressively traces a single, composite notion: Knowing the power of his resurrection is not something in addition to knowing Christ, nor is knowing the fellowship of his sufferings a further addition to both. Rather, the controlling consideration is union with Christ in his death and resurrection such that to "know"/experience Christ is to experience the power of his resurrection and that, in turn, is to experience the fellowship of his sufferings--a total reality that can then be summed up as conformity to Christ's death.

By virtue of union with Christ, Paul is saying, the power of Christ's resurrection is realized in the sufferings of the believer; sharing in Christ's sufferings is the way the church manifests his resurrection-power, Again, as in 2 Corinthians 4:10-11, the locus of eschatological life is Christian suffering; the mark--the indelible, ineradicable impression--left on the existence of the church by the formative power of the resurrection is the Cross, And, further, this is not some merely temporary state of affairs incidental to the circumstances of the church in the apostle's own day but is for all--the whole church in whatever time and place--who aspire to the resurrection of the dead (v. 11).

This is also what Romans 8:17b has in view when Paul rounds off his immediately preceding teaching with a sweeping provision not a condition for the adoption just spoken of (v. 14b-17a) but a conditional element nonetheless, given with that adoption: "if indeed we share his (Christ's) sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory."

This correlation of future glory and present suffering is a prominent concern in the section that follows. At least two points are worth noting about "our sufferings" (v. 18): (1) their nature/breadth and (2) their terminus,

Christian suffering ought not to be conceived of too narrowly. In the passages so far considered, and elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g., 2 Corinthians 1:5-10 and 1 Peter 4:12-19), suffering surely includes but is more than persecution and martyrdom (reserved primarily, say, for apostles and foreign missionaries).

Romans 8:18ff. especially discloses the breadth of what ought to be our conception of Christian suffering. Suffering has to be seen in the context of the "frustration"/futility (mataiotes)), the "bondage to decay" to which the entire creation has been subjected, not by the inherent nature of things but because of God's curse on Adam's sin (v. 20-21 are, in effect, a Pauline commentary on Genesis 3), Suffering is a function of the futility/decay principle pervasively at work in the creation since the fall; suffering is everything that pertains to creaturely experience of this death-principle.

From this perspective, then, Christian suffering is literally all the ways in which this "weakness-existence" (v. 26) is borne, by faith, in the service of Christ--the mundane, "trivial" but often so easily exasperating and unsettling frustrations of daily living, as well as monumental testing and glaring persecution. Suffering with Christ is the totality of existence "in the mortal body" and within "this world in its present form (that) is passing away" (1 Corinthians 7:31), endured for his sake. What has to be reckoned with here is the pervasive "givenness" of Christian suffering--its constitutive nature for the existence of the church as a whole; suffering for Christ is the inseparable correlate of believing in him--the precise point of 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 ... " (cf. 2 Timothy 3:12: "In fact ("in the last days," v. 1, that is, until his return), everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted)."

Romans 8:18ff. is no less clear as to the terminus of this comprehensive suffering. Together with the rest of the creation, Satan and his servants excepted, believers exist in hope (v. 20), in "groaning" (v. 22-23, cf. 26) anticipation (v. 29, 23) of "the revelation of the sons of God" (v. 19), of "the glorious freedom of the children of God" (v. 21). This revelation/liberation of believers (note: along with and inseparable from the liberation of creation as a whole) is the future dimension of their adoption and will take place at the time of the redemption (= resurrection) of the body (v, 23), not before. Until then, at Christ's return, the suffering/futility/decay principle in creation remains in force, undiminished (but sure to be overcome); it is an enervating factor that cuts across the church's existence, including its mission, in its entirety. The notion that this frustration factor will be demonstrably reduced, and the church's suffering service noticeably alleviated and even compensated, in a future era before Christ's return is not merely foreign to this passage; it trivializes as well as blurs both the present suffering and future hope/glory in view. Until his return, the church remains one step behind its exalted Lord; his exaltation means its (privileged) humiliation, his return (and not before), its exaltation.

It bears emphasizing that what we are presently considering is not some subordinate, peripheral strand of New Testament teaching. That can be further appreciated from the fundamental structural observation that Paul and the other writers expound the teaching of Jesus and so the eschatological reality, central to that teaching according to the Synoptic Gospels, called the kingdom of God/heaven; the New Testament writers are basically interpreters of the kingdom-proclamation of Jesus (and, so, in turn, of the Old Testament as the roots of that proclamation).

The passages on suffering just considered, among others, expand on a fundamental dimension of Jesus' teaching on disciple-ship: the actual arrival of the eschatological kingdom in Jesus' coming means, until his return, suffering service. In the kingdom the measure of greatness is to be a servant (Matthew 20:26; Mark 10:43); a key watchword of the kingdom is "very last and servant of all" (Mark 9:35). More specifically, Jesus announces as an absolute requisite, "life-saving" condition of discipleship: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me (Luke 9:23-24; cf. Matthew 10:38; 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 14:27), Cross bearing is a comprehensive description of kingdom-discipleship, as the qualification "daily" makes explicit. In response to the disciples' request for prominent kingdom status--kingdom "dominion," if you will--the only promise Jesus has for them (and us), this side of his return, is the "fellowship of sharing in his sufferings" (cf. Philippians 3:10): "You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with" (Mark 10:37, 39). John has got it just right: until Jesus comes again, the presence of the kingdom is bracketed by the realities of "suffering" and "endurance" (Revelation 1:9; cf. 3:11, 22:7, 12, 20).

This mark--this essential mark--of the church's identity seems muted or largely ignored today. Most assuredly, the eschatology of the New Testament is an "eschatology of victory"--victory presently being realized by and for the church, through the eschatological kingship of the exalted Christ (Ephesians 1:22). But any outlook that fails to grasp that, short of Christ's return, this eschatology of victory is an eschatology of suffering--an eschatology of (Christ's) "power made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9)--confuses the identity of the church. As Paul reminds the church just a few verses after the Romans 8 passage considered above (v, 37), not "beyond" or "(only) after" but In all these things" ("trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword," v, 35), "we are more than conquerors." Until Jesus comes again, the church "wins" by "losing."

Any outlook that tends to remove or obscure the (constitutive) dimension of suffering for the Gospel from the present triumph of the church is an illusion. According to Jesus, the church will not have drained the shared cup of his suffering until he returns. The church cannot afford to evade that point, It does so at the risk of jeopardizing its own identity. The perennially demanding, often perplexing path the church is called to follow, until Jesus comes, can be negotiated only as "we live by faith, not by sight" (2 Corinthians 5:7).

Editor's Note: Excerpted and reprinted from the author's chapter "Theonomy and Eschatology" in Theonomy: A Reformed Critique (Grand Rapids, Ml: Zondervan, 1990), pp. 196-224 with permission of the author.

"Sharing Christ's Sufferings and Glory: The Church's Calling Before Christ's Return"
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