With the recent news of the martyrdom of our brothers in Turkey, many of us would due well to think about the role of suffering in the Christian life. Those of us blessed to live out our faith in the western world have had to endure little or no suffering for the cause of Christ. But this is not true for the Church in the rest of the world. In an effort to better understand and appreciate the trials of our brothers and sisters, and perhaps prepare for our own in the future, we should think more deeply about suffering.
One of the central motifs in the epistles of Paul is suffering. The concept of suffering appears in Paul’s epistles over sixty times. Paul even speaks of suffering as being universal when in Romans he states that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now” (8:22). This emphasis on suffering should come as no surprise to readers of the New Testament, for Paul himself clearly suffered much during his time of Christian ministry (2 Cor 11:22-28). For Paul, these sufferings were not without purpose. In truth, they played an essential role in his ministry and teaching, and served as an example for other believers. Those sufferings were essential because of their relationship to the sufferings of Christ. In the discussion of suffering in Paul’s epistles, one must also have an understanding of how Paul viewed the sufferings of Christ himself.
The purpose of this paper is to explore the various ways in which Paul speaks of suffering in connection with his ministry as an apostle, and his life as a believer. In attempting to draw these connections, one can see at least four issues that arise from the relationship between suffering and his ministry in Paul’s epistles: the sufferings of Christ, a defense of Paul’s ministry, the essence of Paul’s ministry, and the believer’s fellowship with Christ. This paper will attempt to examine these themes by synthesizing Paul’s related teaching from various passages within his epistles.
The sufferings of Christ are often mentioned in Paul’s epistles (e.g. Gal 6:17; Col 1:24; 2 Cor 1:5; 4:9). Clearly in Paul’s writings, the sufferings of Christ are both unique and sufficient for salvation (Gal 1:4; 1 Cor 1:18-31; 2 Cor 5:16-21).
For Paul, the sufferings of Christ were typified in the cross. He saw the cross as vital for Christian reflection and life.
Paul tells us that it was on the cross that God made Christ to suffer in order that He might become a propitiation for our sins (Rom 3:25), and thus reconcile the world to God (2 Cor 5:19). Paul uses the metaphor of propitiation for our sins to speak of Christ averting God’s wrath.
Paul explains this metaphor through a long argument in Rom 1:18-3:20. There he says, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness” (1:18). When Paul says that Christ is the “propitiation,” he is telling his readers that sinners can be saved from the wrath of God because, through His suffering and death, Christ has turned away the wrath of God (cf. Rom 5:9; 1 Thess 1:10).
Thus, for Paul, it was through the suffering of Christ on the cross that salvation was accomplished (Acts 13:26-39; Rom 3:21-26; 2 Cor 5:21).
One of the key texts for Paul’s teaching on the cross is found in his letter to the Philippians. Paul quotes an early Christian hymn as he writes of “Christ Jesus who emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (2:7-8). Here Paul shows that Christ was faithful to the Father through his suffering, and accomplished God’s purpose of salvation, for which Christ was then “highly exalted” (2:9).
Paul very often links his own sufferings to the suffering and cross of Christ, and this passage from Philippians (2:6-11) lies at the center of that relationship.
Paul views his sufferings as being directly related to those of Christ. The section that follows explores the relationship between the sufferings that Paul describes of himself in his ministry and the suffering of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Thomas Schreiner, “The Pauline Mission, Ministry, and Suffering” (classroom lecture, 22240 – Advanced Introduction to New Testament, Spring 2001, photocopy), 61.
Scott J. Hafemann, “Suffering,” in the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993), 919.
Hafemann, “Suffering,” 920.
J. B. Green, “Death of Christ,” in the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993), 201.
Leon Morris, New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 34.
Green, “Death of Christ,” 208.