In Philippians 3 Paul took out all his prized possessions, one by one and looked them over. People ooh and aah over and sometimes wish they had such things and Paul himself thought highly of them but a time came in his life when he thought, “Still, compared with Christ and what I have in Him, these are all no better than rubbish.”
It was more than thinking of them as dispensable; he actually experienced the loss of them (3:7-8). This was the kind of loss that people understandably stagger under and sob about. Paul was no Stoic; after examining them in detail he said, “But they aren’t worthy to be compared with the glory I find in Christ Jesus and will one day experience in full.”
When Paul urged people to image him even as he imaged the Lord Jesus he wasn’t speaking as if he was close to sinless or even that he was pursuing sinlessness. That was never his point. Of course he believed that followers of Christ were to pursue holiness without which no one can “see” God but he was talking about the shape of his life as a whole. In Chapter 2 Christ thought in a certain way and consequently acted in a certain way and in chapter 3 Paul thought in a certain way and then acted in a certain way. As one member in the Body of Christ he knew he was to rehearse before the world the redeeming work of the Lord Jesus. He wanted to enter deeper and deeper into fellowship with Jesus Christ in His redeeming life, suffering and death that he might experience the fellowship of His resurrection (3:7-11 and 2:5-11).
This is one of the central ways that suffering functions in Philippians and elsewhere. In Romans 8:17-39, a section that is about the experience of suffering and how it “clashes” with the victory of Jesus and the (therefore) expected fulfillment of blessings which haven’t arrived. In 8:29 Paul insists that just as Jesus suffered and then was glorified so his People were commissioned by God to be conformed to the image of His Son. That text isn’t talking about the pursuit of moral excellence—the passage has to do with rehearsing the Story of the entire Bible which culminates with the Lord Christ and His suffering and glory.
Peter finally grasped what he once thought was “strange”. He fervently protested against the Messiah’s suffering and death (Matthew 16:16-23) and what that would have meant but in 1 Peter 1:11; 2:1-10; 3:13—4:6 he shows he “got it” and says, “Don’t think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed you may also be glad with exceeding joy…” (4:12-14).
Christians suffering! Their inheritance in Christ is heavenly, incorruptible, undefiled, unfading and glorious (1 Peter 1:3, passim) and yet they suffer in all the ways humans suffer, in all the ways that Jesus their Lord suffered. The NT witness would have us believe that Christians in suffering along with the world are rehearsing the redemptive suffering and glory of Christ. They are to do it for God, for the Church and for the world—they are to see themselves as the form the living Christ now takes in the world and by faith they are to choose it to be their destiny—suffering and glory to follow
To reduce all of Christ’s suffering to persecution is foolishness and to claim that only faith-filled endurance of suffering as persecution reflects Jesus—that’s nonsense. It robs people of the possibility of joy in faithfully enduring disease and hurt and loneliness and weariness (see Paul’s list of his troubles in 2 Corinthians 6 & 11).
Believe this: your faith-filled and God-trusting endurance of all he troubles that humans suffer is your part in the “extension” of the Incarnation of God in Christ.
This too is noteworthy. Here’s a man (Paul) who went the distance in pursuit of Christ and still confessed he couldn’t catch up to Him. We’re tempted to think if anyone has fully entered into all that union with Christ means it must have been Paul. He hurries to make clear (3:12), “I’m not suggesting I’ve arrived. Far from it! But I continue the pursuit.” This says a lot about Paul, of course, but it says a lot about Jesus Christ. How much is there to him? If someone pursues him as recklessly as Paul, without counting the cost or holding back, what treasures of joy and pain and longing and achievement must be hidden in Christ?
Hmmm, what treasures can I pull out of my experience? What precious things, what gifts from God for which I should be grateful? And what would lead me without despising them or denying their loveliness to see them as trivia in comparison with Christ and what it means to be part of Him? What would lead me to do more than point to Paul’s experience and wish it were my own? I wonder.