Suffering (pt 4)

The Believer’s Fellowship with Christ

One of the distinctive elements of Paul’s Christology lies in his use of the phrase “in Christ,” and its variants, to describe believers.[1] While this basic concept is also found in 1 Peter and in John’s Gospel, it is Paul who deepens and develops its meaning the most.[2] For him, being “in Christ” is the antithesis of being “in Adam” (1 Cor 15:22). Those “in Christ” are a new creation (2 Cor 5:17), and part of the age to come, though living in this present age.

Being “in Christ” means that one has been united in the death and resurrection of Christ. In Romans, Paul says that those who believe “have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection” (6:4-5). Speaking eschatologically, with Christ’s death the old age has passed away and new age has begun.[3] This new age is characterized by an increasing conformity of believers to the image of Christ.[4] Paul also develops the theological truth of being “in Christ” with the concept of suffering.

In the Thessalonians epistles, Paul speaks of the believers in Thessalonica imitating him and Christ despite much suffering (1 Thess 1:6). In his next letter, Paul mentions the suffering again, but also goes on to give a theological reason for the suffering (2 Thess 1:4-5). Paul tells them that God is working out his righteous purposes through their suffering.[5] The ability of the Thessalonian believers to continue in their faith despite suffering demonstrates that God’s “judgment is right” and that they will be considered “worthy of the kingdom.”[6] Those “in Christ” will experience suffering as a means to shape and mold their faith and character after the pattern of Christ, resulting in their future glory.[7]

In 2 Corinthians, Paul speaks of sharing the sufferings of Christ (1:5), and extends that sharing to the Corinthians believers (1:7). Here, though, Paul’s point seems not to emphasize that the Corinthians will suffer so much as he tries to encourage them with an assurance of comfort. Just as Paul experienced the suffering of Christ, he also experienced the comfort of Christ (1:4). Since he has been comforted in his suffering, he can now comfort others in their suffering (1:6). Paul wants to assure the Corinthians that as they share the sufferings of Paul they too will share in his comfort.[8] By implication, those that are “in Christ” who experience suffering, are then equipped to comfort others who go through suffering.[9] Believers are enabled to do this because suffering drives them to trust in God (1:9).

As is evident from Paul’s writing, to participate “in Christ” is also to participate in his sufferings – Paul says that believers are called to it (1 Thess 3:3). This not only refers to the spiritual aspects of putting of the “old man” but also involves experiencing physical suffering. Paul does not say that all believers are called to suffer in the same way, as he was an apostle.[10] Rather, he simply recognizes that Christians will endure suffering as a natural result of being “in Christ.”[11] One who is “in Christ” is to follow the example of Christ and this means a denial of self to serve others. Since this attitude is so contrary to that of the world, ridicule and even persecution is to be expected.[12]


This paper has attempted to provide an overview of the theology of suffering Paul presents in relationship to his ministry. It has seen Paul’s teaching as being divided into four major grouping: the suffering and death of Christ, the essence of Paul’s ministry, Paul’s defense for his ministry, and the believer relationship with Christ.

In the first section, it was shown that Paul frequently speaks of the sufferings of Christ (e.g. Gal 6:17; Col 1:24; 2 Cor 1:5; 4:9), and that in his 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, for Paul tells us that on the cross God made Christ to suffer in order that He might become a propitiation for our sins (Rom 3:25), and thus reconcile men to God (2 Cor 5:19). There cannot be enough emphasis placed on the cross in the reading of Paul.[13] For him, this was the central act of God in all of human history.

In the second section it was shown that Paul frequently links his own sufferings to the suffering and cross of Christ. For Paul, his sufferings are directly related to those of Christ. Luke even picked up on this in Acts by relaying that Paul’s ministry will also be marked by suffering (9:15-16). Paul himself saw his sufferings as a means by which the gospel could be furthered as well as a corollary to the sufferings of Christ (Col 1:24-25). Paul saw himself as replicating the cross through his suffering. And while the cross and the sufferings of Christ served as the archetypal birthpang of the coming age, Paul’s suffering helped filled up what was lacking in the afflictions that are to be expected during this time of transition. He helped to complete all the sufferings, (birthpangs, Rom 8:22) that must occur until Jesus, the Messiah returns.

In the third section, it was demonstrated that Paul defended his apostolic ministry on the basis of his suffering. Despite the culture of the Corinthians, Paul boasted in his weakness, knowing that the frailty of his life was simply the means by which the power of God was revealed (2 Cor 4:7-15; 12:7-10). Paul too had a unique role of suffering to play in that he stood between God and the first-century believers, ministering to the Spirit of God.

The final section examined Paul’s teaching on the relationship suffering and being “in Christ.” While Paul suffered in a unique way as an apostle of Christ, all believers will nevertheless suffer, though not necessarily to the same extent (Rom 8:17; 2 Tim 3:12). There it was reveled that those who are “in Christ” are in fact called to suffer. Believers are to follow the example of Christ and lead a life of selfless love towards others. Following this servant lifes
le will invariably bring about ridicule and persecution.

In the end, it is clear that for Paul suffering and salvation are closely linked together. This must give us pause as Christians in the twenty-first century. For while we might expect our culture to shy away from suffering, it is surprising that the western church does so as well. Like the Corinthians so many years ago, we tend to boast in what we have accomplished – lots of wealth, big cars, and large numbers in our church, to name a few. Unfortunately, the theology of Paul in the area of suffering seems not to have made a great impact upon our thinking. And yet all over the world, in at least forty-four countries,[14] Christians are persecuted, made to suffer, and killed everyday. This does not include all of the “small” trials that Christians all over the world goes through. Too many times we as believers fall into the trap of the “health and wealth” gospel, shirking from suffering or hardship of any kind. Paul tells us that God actually uses the pain of this age to make us look more like the image of His risen Son (2 Thess 1:4-5), and to trust in Him more fully (2 Cor 1:9). That is why Paul can say with confidence that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purposes” (Rom 8:28).


[1]Ben Witherington “Christology,” in the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993), 114.


[3]James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 403.


[5]Leon Morris, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 196.

[6]Morris, Thessalonians, 197.


[8]Ralph P. Martin, 2 Corinthians, WBC 40 (Waco: Word, 1986), 11-12.


[10]Hafemann, “Suffering,” 920.

[11]Belleville, “Imitate Me,” 140.


[13]Dunn, Theology of Paul, 213.

[14]According to the Voice of the Martyrs website; available from http://

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