Knowing Christ in His Sufferings
Mel Lawrenz is an author and Minister at Large and former Senior Pastor at Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, WI.
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In his poignant letter to the Philippians, written from desperate moments in prison when Paul thought that his life may be poured out in sacrifice at any time, he contemplated the form of death and the form of resurrection that was his hope.
What more complete proof do we need of the transforming Christ, than to see a man face his own demise seeing it in the shape of the death of his Lord, and having an unshakable hope and belief that in resurrection he would be formed according to the morphe of Christ?
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him [summorphoo] in his death….
And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform [metamphoo] our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. (Phil. 3:10, 21)
In every respect, then, the Christian is committed to an unequivocal, unambiguous program: to be shaped according to the image of Christ who is perfect God (thus leading us back to god-likeness), and perfect man (thus showing us the shape of human life the way it was meant to be). This program involves contemplation and imitation of the life of Jesus, but also, of his death and resurrection.
What did Paul actually think “having the same form” of the death of Christ meant? It is not the means of death particularly that Paul wanted to imitate, but the sacrificial character of Christ’s death. In Paul’s mind, his own suffering in prison (and the whole preceding ordeal of opposition, arrest, trial, and everything else he had to go through as an apostle) had a certain shape. It was not meaningless, random suffering, but sacrifice for a divine cause. Paul knew that in such fashion he was the witness (in Greek, martys) of the saving death of Christ, and would be in line with all the other martyrs from biblical times and beyond. This is the core meaning and the power of the martyrs’ death: sharing the form of Christ’s death. The connection with our daily life is in Jesus’ words:
If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it (Luke 9:23-24).
This distinctive “form” of life is possible only through metamorphosis, because the sacrificial life cuts against so many fundamental human instincts: self-preservation, self-determinism, self-absorption, and self-aggrandizement. Becoming like Christ in his death (both in death itself and in daily life), taking one’s own cross, (which is self-sacrifice, not random suffering) is the most radical thing a human soul can do. A caterpillar’s metamorphosis begins not when the chrysalis opens, but when the chrysalis is formed. This “death” and entombment allows the transforming process to begin. And so, for the Christian, “becoming like Christ in his death,” taking up one’s cross, is the moment and the method for metamorphosis. Is there another way? Jesus couldn’t have made it clearer: “anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Mt. 10:38).
This cross that we take and follow Christ is not specifically the suffering in our lives, but the sacrifice of our lives in obedience to Christ.
On the other side of this most radical notion of discipleship through self-sacrifice is the equally radical promise of personal metamorphosis represented in the final resurrection: “Christ… will transform our lowly bodies.” The form of Christ’s death is countered by the form of his resurrection. The extremity of these two realities—pulled into death to self, then pulled out into resurrection life—is itself the utter reshaping of a life. Such a process can only be described as transformation.