The whole of the gospel is intended to train our heart and life in grace. Yet, if we must press for any particular aspect of the gospel that most frames and forms Christian living it is our participation by grace in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The gospel makes it plain that the death and resurrection of Jesus are not simply events that we believe and confess, but they are realities in which we share. The Christian is someone who has died and risen with Christ. The pattern of cross and resurrection is stamped on our lives. It shapes our present identity. Thus Paul’s words,
Phil 3:8-10 (ESV)
I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord… that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…
But what does this mean? How for example, do we presently experience the power of his resurrection? What enables us to ‘take up the cross’ and follow Christ? Do we sometimes experience the power of his resurrection and at others the fellowship of his cross and sufferings? Do we experience the power of his resurrection despite embracing the fellowship of his sufferings?
The answer to all the above is this: we know the power of his resurrection in embracing the fellowship of his sufferings by conforming to his death. Our Christian life is not resurrection or cross. Neither is it resurrection and cross. It is resurrection for the cross and in the cross. If we die to live, and we do, in another sense we live to die.
The only way I can take up the cross and follow Christ is through the enabling power of his resurrection life in the Spirit. It is the same Spirit who acted powerfully to raise Christ from the dead who enabled him to live, obedient to the extent of death, even cross-death; it was through the eternal Spirit he offered himself to God (Hebs 9:14). And it is the same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead in resurrection life who works in our hearts, we who were dead in trespasses and sins, have been made alive with Christ that we may be given over to death for him. To put it as Paul does in 2 Cor 4,
2 Cor 4:10-11 (ESV)
we are… always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.
Again, we die to live and we live to die. There is a reciprocity, a symbiosis, in death and resurrection.
What is the life of Christ that is revealed in us? It is his life on earth, his life of cross-bearing, a cross-bearing that began long before he hung upon the cross. Christ’s whole life was one of cross-bearing, in the sense that his whole life was lived with self-will always held in the place of death. His personal will was always determined to do only the will of his Father (although Christ was not attracted to sin, neither was he attracted to pain, suffering and rejection; he embraced these willingly because these were his Father’s will) . Cross-bearing is death to self (not simply to sin). It is to die to ‘self’ with all its siren calls for protection, pampering, prestige, power, pleasure and profit.
And so, resurrection life means living in death. Resurrection power is power in weakness.
We so often hear that God will bless his people with possessions, health, good relationships. Or that resurrection power is power to overcome or heal sickness and disease. Sometimes God does bless his people with the good things of this life, though he never promises this and these gifts if given are the very least of his gifts. And sometimes he does give people abilities to do miracles revealing his power in visible ways but these are the exception. Chiefly his power works in our lives by enabling us to put to death our selfish desires and equipping us to endure suffering and rejection for the sake of the gospel. Paul’s prayer for the Colossians is revealing:
Col 1:11 (ESV)
May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy
Notice it is power to endure. Power to suffer. Power to find joy not apart from suffering but in and through suffering.
Look at the Christians you know. Who reveal the life of Christ? It is not those pursuing material comfort, career advancement, and every hobby and sport imaginable, rather it is those who are serving others. It is those who look not on their own interests but the interests of others; those who visit the sick, support the vulnerable and needy, have a word from the Lord suitable for the occasion, pray with mourning hearts for the lost, and who suffer deprivation and trial for the gospel. People whose voices are not raised in the street. People who do not press themselves, or vindicate themselves. These are the people you see Christ in. These are the people where his life is evident. And these are the people who seem most content and who most know joy in life for it is he who loses his life who finds it.
Such people are rarely life’s celebrities. We place far too much emphasis on performance. We think that if we can only get a champion athlete, or a succesful businessman, or an intellectual with a string of letters after his name to front our outreach then people will respond. We think the big name, the big personality, the big preacher, the big show, band or whatever is where it is at. We admire these qualities. We place store on what is superficially impressive – on outward appearances. We admire the dynamic personality. We want the clever orator, the one who can hold a crowd in his hand. Yet big personalities are not what God values. The way of the cross is not about big names, big personalities, big gifts, or big shows. It is precisely the opposite. The way of the cross is the way of weakness. It is the way of refusing to draw attention to self, to promote self, to display self. The messenger and the message must be the same.
Paul refused to preach to the Corinthians with impressive words and oratory. They loved these things and for this very reason he refused to display them. The power lay not in human giftedness and glory but in God, and was best demonstrated in human weakness and insignificance.
1Cor 2:1-5 (ESV)
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
When are we going to learn that the weapons of our warfare are not ‘fleshly’ (impressive shows, impressive presentations, impressive preachers, impressive personalities, political muscle) but spiritual; it is in weakness, suffering, humility, endurance, self-giving, patient prayer,and ordinary preaching without glamour, that the power of God’s resurrection life is to be found. How many people do you know who have been won for Christ through big shows, big concerts, big budget events? God’s way is not in the impressive, but the humanly unimpressive.
1Cor 1:26-29 (ESV)
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
This is not a plea for laziness, or carelessness, or poor preparation. There is no virtue in these. Nor is it a plea for using people for a task who are not gifted for it. It is a plea, however, for us to place great importance on prayer, on self-giving in the lives of others, and on the simple witness of an ordinary believer. It is a plea to seek for God’s power in the places he says it will be found and nowhere else. It is a plea to seek life through death and to seek God’s power through weakness and through things that are normally discounted by human measuring.