Part of what makes suffering in ministry hard is the loneliness you feel in the midst of the difficulty. For this reason, I am comforted by the New Testament passages that show our suffering in ministry is not apart from Christ, but in unity with him. According to the New Testament, Jesus suffers with his suffering ministers of the gospel, and vice versa.
Jesus made this point on the Damascus Road when he asked, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). He was persecuting the church, of course. But since the church is Christ’s body, Jesus says that he himself was receiving the persecution. Later Paul, likely influenced by that experience, writes, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24).
The church suffers with Jesus and Jesus suffers with the church, especially in the context of ministering the gospel. We are not talking about atonement suffering, that belongs to Jesus alone. We are talking about opposition and affliction experienced by those who spread the gospel.
The passage I really want to land on, however, is John chapter 21, where we see this principle work out in Peter’s restoration after Jesus’ resurrection.
Peter restored with a call to suffer as an undershepherd in unity with Jesus
When Jesus restores Peter after his denial, he does so only in a way not that calls Peter to suffer for him, but particularly to suffer with him.
Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:18-19).
This prediction contains three similarities that reveal an overlap between Jesus’ suffering and Peter’s:
1. Jesus called himself the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:14-15). Peter will be a good undershepherd (Jesus had just told him, “Feed my sheep,” three times) and lay his life down because of his ministry to Jesus’ sheep.
2. Jesus was crucified. Peter will “stretch out his hands,” which was a common way to speak of crucifixion back then.
3. Jesus’ death was a revelation of his glory (12:23), and Peter will glorify God by his death.
So not only will Peter proclaim the message of the cross, but in a unique way he will embody the message of the cross. Peter’s suffering is in unity with Jesus.
This is good news for pastors who have chickened out of suffering like Peter. At the cross Jesus was treated as one who denied God, so that we who have denied him could be forgiven, and be regarded with Christ’s faithfulness. But even more, the cross has the power to change wimpy deniers of Jesus into faithful, courageous martyrs like Peter. That power can be yours through trusting Jesus.
Not everyone is called to suffer the same way
Not everyone is called to give their life for the gospel. We learn this in the next few verses:
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:20-22)
John was not called to die a martyr’s death, although we know from Revelation that he faced his fair share suffering, too (Rev. 1:9). So the question is, no matter what level of sacrifice we are called to make, how do face suffering in a way that glorifies God?
Three ways to suffer for God’s glory in your ministry
Here are a few ways I think this applies to those who minister the gospel today.
1. View your suffering in unity with Jesus’ suffering Just like Jesus went to the cross, he calls all his followers to bear the cross daily, whether or not they are called to give their life on it, like Peter. The church follows the Lamb wherever he goes (Rev. 14:4), and he is the Lamb who was slain (Rev. 5:6). We face suffering because Jesus did. Expect it, don’t be surprised by it.
2. Be content with the amount of sacrifice God has called you to endure Perhaps you feel guilty that you are not facing much opposition right now. Or maybe you are facing such difficulty now that you find yourself envious of those who have it “easy” in ministry. Peter and John show us that not everyone is meant to face the same amount suffering, nor are they called to face it at the same time. Whatever God’s loving providence has brought you today, be content, while sharing the gospel with all the power he mightily works in you (Col. 1:29).
3. Fulfill God’s call on your life despite the sacrifice you’ve been called to make Peter faithfully served Jesus for three more decades after Jesus predicted his martyrdom. John used his long life to shepherd God’s church, to disciple the next generation of Christian leaders, and to become one of the most prolific NT authors. God will use you as you go to work for the mission of spreading the gospel, despite the suffering you will face.