By Vic Reasoner
Saul was trying to serve God by persecuting followers of Jesus Christ. On the Damascus Road God spoke and Saul fell to the ground saying, “Who are you, Lord?” Three days later Saul was healed of blindness, received the Spirit in salvation, and was called to preach. Now, some twenty-seven years later Paul cries out, “I want to know him.”
Paul did know him, but his past revelation only intensified his hunger to know God more deeply. Sometimes we are attracted to a person until we get to know him; then we are disillusioned. One of the marks that a person really knows God is the hunger for more of God. Today there is very little seeking after God. Spiritual relationships have been stagnate for decades. However, this passage encourages us to pursue deeper levels of intimacy with God.
There is something significant in the order. Christ suffered first, and then was raised from the dead. Here the order is reversed: first resurrection, then suffering, and finally death. What is Paul trying to say?
Resurrection power is the new birth. We know that he is not talking about the resurrection in the last day, because he comes to that subject in verse 11. The resurrection power of verse 10 is regeneration.
Regeneration is sometimes compared with resurrection. “And you, being dead in your trespasses and sins, were made alive” (Eph. 2:1-5). “The time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live” (John 5:25). This is the first resurrection of Revelation 20:5. Those who have part in this spiritual resurrection are blessed and holy.
Those who experience the surge of new life often wonder how they can know God any more deeply. But eventually the Spirit will lead them into the wilderness of suffering.
There is a danger that we assume our sainthood simply on the basis of all that we have gone through. But our faith must always be in the cleansing blood of Christ, not upon our resume of suffering. The only suffering that is efficacious is when we enter into the fellowship of his suffering. All too often we fail to move beyond our own pain. We lash out, “What did I do to deserve this?” We develop a martyr complex. We become bitter. The only suffering which becomes a means of grace is suffering which causes us to look away from ourselves and focus upon his passion.
The word “fellowship” is koinonia. The root meaning of this well-known Greek word is to have something in common. Although I was not present historically when Christ suffered on the cross, my suffering can connect with his. We can have a shared experience.
He was stricken and smitten. He was afflicted, wounded, crushed, chastised, and oppressed. He suffered alone for me. But I need not ever suffer alone. Although my suffering can never be equated with his suffering, I am still overwhelmed. My little cup of suffering is all I can manage to drink. But Paul, after his intense persecution, put it in perspective by realizing that his affliction was light. The Hebrew writer reasons with those who are tempted to turn back. You have not agonized to the point of shedding your blood.
The word for “suffering” comes from pathos. In the medical world pathology traces external symptoms to an internal source. Often people do not know they have a physiological disease until they experience discomfort. In the spiritual world suffering does not sanctify, but it often brings to surface our need for a deeper experience with God. Richard S. Taylor said the same thing in The Disciplined Life. “Suffering is intended, not to be the purifying agent, but to drive the soul to Him who is. Suffering….serves one great purpose: it shows us our helplessness, our littleness, our insecurity, our need of God.”
The third level of intimacy with God is death. This seems like a paradox. Yet the implication is that either we turn back when things get hard allowing our new life to die or we press on by looking unto Jesus, leader and perfecter, and die to the remains of the old life.
Entire sanctification is death. It is a more perfect conformity to the nature of Christ. Paul uses the word morph and then adds a prefix meaning “with” to create a new word. When our kids talk about something “morphing,” that means it changes shape or form. A metamorphosis is a transformation. But not all change results in transformation. While we are getting older, the changes we discover are certainly not transforming us.
Those who have already died to sin (Rom 6:2) are to consistently realize that anything associated with the old life of sin is inconsistent with our new life in Christ. Therefore, we do not yield to the temptation to sin. We do not let sin reign over us. We reckon ourselves dead to sin (Rom 6:11). We take up our cross and die daily to our own selfish desires. We pursue our ultimate priority and chief joy, forgetting the past and stretching forward in response to the high calling of God, a call to be Christlike and to know him fully.
Yet while Paul uses a present participle to describe this change, the dying process does not continue indefinitely. John Wesley wrote,
“A man may be dying for some time; yet he does not, properly speaking, die, till the instant the soul is separated from the body; and in that instant he lives the life of eternity. In like manner, he may be dying to sin for some time; yet he is not dead to sin, till sin is separated from his soul; and in that instant he lives the full life of love. And as the change undergone, when the body dies, is of a different kind, and infinitely greater than any we had known before, yea, such as till then it is impossible to conceive; so the change wrought, when the soul dies to sin, is of a different kind, and infinitely greater than any before, and than any can conceive till he experiences it. Yet he still grows in grace, in the knowledge of Christ, in the love and image of God; and will do so, not only till death, but to all eternity.”
I am concerned that when people begin to seek a deeper relationship with God that we are too quick to pronounce them dead. We want an instant sanctification which avoids the messy issues which surface during suffering. It is easier to claim entire sanctification than it is to truly die to self-control. Let us seek neither to bypass this deeper death nor to claim it superficially.
Paul anticipates the general resurrection when he is made perfect. He makes it clear that he had not yet experienced the resurrection of the body. While he categorizes himself as one who is complete or perfect, this is a perfection of motive. Christian perfection is to love God without reservation and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
But Christian perfection is not absolute perfection. Paul is perfect, in a relative sense, but not absolutely perfected. Wesley explained,
“We willingly allow, and continually declare, there is no such perfection in this life, as implies either a dispensation from doing good, and attending all the ordinances of God, or a freedom from ignorance, mistake, temptation, and a thousand infirmities necessarily connected with flesh and blood.”
Someday we will see him as he has always been and he will restore us to all that we were intended to be (1 John 3:2). While the present standard for all God’s children is victory over willful sin (1 John 3:2-10), and while Paul also professes Christian perfection, Paul denies that he had obtained absolute perfection or “perfect holiness,” to use Wesley’s language.
Yet he is not indifferent or passive about his present relationship with Christ. He fervently wants to finish the race and receive the prize. He wants to go to heaven; the quicker the better.
Many today who claim to be followers of Christ have not actually experienced the power of his resurrection. Wesley felt that most who are called Christians are content to live and die in the substandard experience of nothing more that servant statue. The predominate characteristic of those who know him through his indwelling Spirit is that they are seeking to know him more deeply. We seek him, not because we are lost. We seek him because, having tasted the heavenly gift, nothing else satisfies.