In His Sufferings I argued that the principle reason we should care about the persecuted is Jesus. In New Testament theology, the believer is in union with the crucified Messiah therefore his experience is our experience, including his sufferings. Persecuted believers have a share in Jesus’ own sufferings, the climax of which was on the cross. Therefore, to ignore their sufferings is to in the present disregard the cross. If we must care about persecution because of Jesus we must also be concerned with his body, that is, those found in union with the Messiah.
I briefly explained in the former post though it is a spiritual union with Jesus, spiritual in this case does not mean non-physical but a fully embodied relationship. By his spirit living in us we have become real extensions of his incarnate being on earth. We have in a very real and not in a mere metaphorical sense become member of his bodies. Jesus is now our shared reality, our life and hope are in him. We are one body and one bread, drinking the same spirit. Since we are integral members of one living corporate entity, what happens to others intimately matters to us. Paul put it this way in summarizing his discourse on the unity of the body,
If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. – 1 Corinthians 12:26-27 ESV
I have criticised on this platform the rampant individualism in Christianity. Though the personal dimension is important we have overemphasised it to the extent that we have lost sense of our corporate identity. We are one people in the Messiah, the people of God. We are a communion, in union with Jesus first and through him with each other as well. He is the head who supplies every joint, knitting us together and nourishing us in himself. We are integral parts of a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts. With this shared incarnational vision of not only a common identity but a common reality, what happens to a fellow member has also in a profound way happened to me. What affects one, affects all. It with this mindset of unity that the New Testament calls believer to a kind of embodied empathy. We are to think and act as servants of one another as if we are serving ourselves. So the writer of Hebrews prescribes how his readers should treat the persecuted,
Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. – Hebrews 13:3 ESV
For the original audience, this exhortation was all too familiar since persecution was a reality quite a few of them had to face. The author had earlier mentioned how they had suffered and was reminding them it was still happening. For many Christians like myself, we have never faced persecution at least not to the extent many brothers and sisters around the world do. However, as I have previously argued, persecution is a theological, historical and a present statistical reality of being a Christian. Becoming a Christian means coming to terms with the distinct possibility of suffering for the one whose name you bear. “Take up your cross and follow me.” In that regard, the reminder from the writer of Hebrews is still pertinent, even more so since global Christian persecution has reached record highs in recent years.
The only reason many of us do not experience persecution is simply a matter of geography. Those who do suffer in him are a living testimony, representing the Lord Jesus and all those loyal to him. They literally take one for the team captained by our Saviour. The church’s mission is to bear witness to Jesus and they have taken that burden in choosing to be faithful Christians in such difficult circumstances. They are fulfilling a necessary role we all simply cannot do. Just as the eye does something the leg cannot but it is for the benefit of the entire body, persecuted brothers are suffering on our behalf. Paul talks about this remarkable responsibility and paradoxical privilege of suffering for Christ and his body.
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, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known… – Colossians 1:24-25 ESV
Being in union with the Messiah and being members of one another, Paul somehow believed he was suffering on the churches behalf. He believed this in a specific sense saying “my sufferings for [the Colossians] sake” and also generally where he says “for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” He also saw persecution as part and parcel of the Gospel witness. Persecuted brothers and sisters not only represent the church but fulfil its calling to bear witness to Jesus in a hostile world in difficult local contexts. You can only appreciate this perspective that other believers in some real way actually suffer on our behalf, whether we are aware of it or not, when you accept a corporate identity. In the body, one way or another, each part works for the benefit of the whole even when we do not see or understand it.
If we should care about persecution because of Jesus, then we must care about his people who suffer in his name. At the very least we must empathise with them since we bear the same name we too would be targeted if we were in their shoes. More than that, being members of the same body they suffer on our behalf in representing the Lord and his people.