"The Fellowship of His Sufferings"
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation” (1 Peter 4:12-13).
These words of the apostle Peter reflect not only divine inspiration, but also personal experience. On one occasion, Peter and the other apostles were brought before the Jewish council, questioned, flogged, and ordered to stop preaching about Jesus. Upon their release, “they went on their way…rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41).
I hardly think that these men enjoyed being interrogated, beaten, and threatened. But they gladly accepted that abuse. They understood that it was to be expected. After all, Jesus had told them: “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you … If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me” (John 15:18-21).
So, when persecuted by the Sanhedrin, the apostles didn’t wring their hands, wondering what had gone wrong. They didn’t slink into the shadows in silent humiliation. Instead, they wore their mistreatment as a badge of honor that testified of their fellowship with Jesus.
For those of us who have grown up in America—a nation peaceful, stable, free, and largely accepting (or at least tolerant) of Christian ideals—it has been tempting to think of persecution as a rare, ugly abnormality. But being mistreated for Christ is not an anomaly. It goes with discipleship. To know Christ and the power of His resurrection is also to know “the fellowship of His sufferings” (Philippians 3:10; cf. 2 Timothy 3:12; 1 John 3:13). That does not mean that all disciples will face persecution all the time, but it does mean that we should expect it.
I think we are beginning to better appreciate this reality. Over the past few decades, have any of America’s cultural institutions—government, academia, the media—become more friendly toward the practice of New Testament Christianity? Prominent voices send a not-so-subtle message that religious beliefs (Christian ones, at least) should be confined to church buildings or living rooms. To many people, the idea that you or I would actually let Biblical teaching direct our every opinion, decision, and action is mystifying. And a growing number find it not only mystifying, but offensive.
In recent years, for example, we have seen business owners sued, executives hounded out of their jobs, and television personalities vilified, all for refusing to endorse and celebrate homosexual marriage. While relatively rare thus far, such cases reveal how much our culture has changed, and what the future may hold. In workplaces and schools, among friends and family, and certainly in that realm of virtual relationships we call social media, many Christians are experiencing levels of hostility toward their beliefs, and even toward themselves, that they have never faced before. No, the prospect of being denounced as a bigot on Facebook is not the same as the prospect of being beaten, imprisoned, or executed. But, as far as Satan is concerned, the objective is the same. Every form of persecution confronts believers with the same choice: whose favor means more to us—that of God or the world?
Scripture warns that a craving to be well-thought-of by the world is opposed to a life of fellowship with God. “Whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). “For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10). When the heat is on, Christians focus on the blessings of fellowship with God and say, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). We rejoice to be counted worthy to suffer, whether a lot or a little, for the Lord who suffered for us.
And when we see brothers and sisters suffering for Christ, what will we do? Will we back away and treat it only as their problem? Or will we stand by them, support and comfort them, undeterred by the risk that some of the stones hurled at them may also bruise us? The author of Hebrews praised disciples who not only suffered “reproaches and tribulations,” but became “sharers with those who were so treated” by, for example, showing sympathy to those who had been imprisoned for their faith (10:32-34). If and when persecution falls on a fellow Christian, will we do the same?
As we share in Christ’s suffering, to whatever degree, we can know that He shares every burden with us. “For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ…and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:5,7). There is encouragement in knowing that Jesus has walked the road of persecution before us. “Consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:1). There is comfort in His assurances that “momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison,” and that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (2 Corinthians 4:17; Romans 8:18). And there is hope in His promises. “Be faithful until death, and I will give you a crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).