The Most Sobering Verse in the Bible (at least for me)

I became a Christian in high school. The pastor said some things about hell, and I was sure I didn’t want to go there. Jesus, I was told, was standing by ready to get me out of that, as soon as I gave him the go-ahead.

A few years later I caught wind of the fact that there was more to it. Jesus wasn’t a get-out-of-hell free card.

Paul put it this way–and when I first began to see the point, I couldn’t help but notice that none of this was in the brochure:

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death (Phil 3:10).

I learned in seminary that the first “and” is what we call in the business “epexegetical,” or explanatory. To get the gist, replace the first “and” with “in other words.”

Paul doesn’t want to know three things: Christ, the power of his resurrection, and sharing Christ’s suffering. He is saying that knowing Christ means those two other things. Or, if you prefer, without both of those other things–the glory and the humiliation, the heights and the depths–there is no “knowing Christ.”

Glory and humiliation. Not a formula for getting saved from hell, but a pattern of life modeled by Jesus and destined for his followers.

If it was good enough for Jesus, Paul says, it’s good enough for us.

Experiencing in our daily journey the same power that raised Jesus–but, only if we are also willing to accept the other side of the coin, deep suffering. This is why suffering is a normal state of affairs for followers of Christ. If you feel like you can’t go on, you’re on the right track. Dying and rising. A sobering paradox.

Elsewhere Paul said that being a follower of Jesus means you’re dead and your life is “hidden” with Christ in God; or you have been crucified with Christ and thus no longer technically alive. Jesus talked about taking up your cross daily and following him; or dying to oneself.

Dying. Crucified. Hidden. Had I known, I might have thought about it a bit longer.

No, this was definitely not in the brochure. What would it look like if we put this idea right out there at the beginning? “Hi neighbor, I’d like to invite you to church with me. The pastor is wonderful and the people are friendly…though, there is this other matter you probably ought to know….”

I imagine no one is drawn to the idea. No one really wants to “die” the way the gospel tells us to. I’m still getting used to the idea myself.





did the apostle Paul (or God) believe in a literal Adam?
get to know me: my approach to interpreting the Bible, in 5 words
“aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (1): me
10th anniversary edition of Inspiration and Incarnation coming this summer
  • justin


    I’ve wondered this same thing with regard to how salvation invitations are given. I normally hear how Jesus will change your life and transform you. He will forgive you and you will have peace. That is what is offered after the bad news of our sin.
    Alternatively, we should hear something like, “Life is going to suck sometimes, maybe most of the time. It may not be any better than you have now, probably worse. You probably will struggle with the same stuff, except now you have Jesus to lean on and identify with, and you can have hope in an infinitely better place in eternity. Don’t make this decision lightly, don’t do it unless you really mean it. If you want to find glory, you will have to suffer like Jesus did.”

    • Paul D.

      The problem is that Evangelical Christianity consists of convincing people they have a problem they didn’t know they have, then trying to sell them the solution. That’s exactly what seems to have happened in the story Pete tells about his own conversion. (God’s going to torture you in Hell forever! But wait — there’s an escape clause. If you repeat these magic words…)

  • Tom Drake-Brockman

    Not much joy there guys.
    Two things you need to consider, both very positive regarding saving our butts and the future of Christianity:
    2. Luke 12:48.

  • Jonathan Becker

    Thank you, Pete. I needed this post.

  • Brant

    I have long thought that “Take up your cross and follow me” is the worst imaginable recruitment strategy.

  • http://Patheos Bev G

    Why doesn’t someone come up with a small booklet, say gold colored. On the front it could say “God has a DIFFICULT plan for your life”. The honesty would be refreshing.

    • Tom Drake-Brockman

      Compassionate love for the weak and vulnerable is not difficult. It is more like a privilege- any parent can tell you that.

  • Lise

    Great post! While I would never wish suffering on anyone and understand why one would not long to plunge into its experiential aspect of Christology, I think it’s possible to arrive at a place where suffering can be embraced as part of the landscape of grace (along with its protestations). But we live in a culture (irrespective of one’s faith) that does not understand or tolerate grief and loss, so there is little support for how to witness and endure various forms of hardship. Case in point, we used to take an entire year to grieve the death of a loved one, plus wore black to signify the solemnity of the period. Now however, we typically get three days off from work and then are supposed to be over it. Likewise, we prescribe pills for just about anything and everything thinking that this can keep the anguish of the human heart at bay. So it makes complete sense why they wouldn’t put sharing Christ’s suffering on the Christianity brochure.

    I came to Christ through suffering. I knew nothing of the Good News, or of good news. But what I found in those moments of heartbreak (mine and others) was that just at the breaking point, God entered the room. And that moment was as sacred as any in a cathedral. It took time for me to understand Christ in a more visceral sense and to distinguish Christianity from other spiritual contexts, yet theaters, therapy rooms, and church are all the same to me. Blessed are those that mourn…

    I had a paper published in 2003 that addresses death in transformation from a clinical and artistic framework. I was not writing from a Christian context at the time, as I was not Christian – but it still addresses the “sobering paradox.” .

  • Chris

    I have sort of a weird relationship with this verse. On the one hand, I definitely agree, and trying to love others rightly while maintaining your beliefs can be a very difficult process.

    On the other hand, this verse can quickly turn into a persecution complex. The logic runs thusly:

    1. All Christians are persecuted.
    2. Socrates is a Christian.
    3. Therefore, Socrates is persecuted.

    If a person believes themselves to be a Christian yet do not suffer, then they invent imaginary persecutors. This often takes the form of people trying to live their lives in a way which differs from how one’s particular doctrine says you should live, i.e. the homosexual is persecuting me because he lives differently and wants the right to do so. That’s not persecution; rather, the people imagining these persecutors are more often the persecutors, themselves.

    • Chris

      Typo: does not suffer*

  • Grandmother

    Really appreciate these past couple of posts of yours. But losing one’s self and dying to self – unfortunately, those phrases are triggers for me in light of the Christian subculture I grew up in (Yes, I know Jesus said them). I have not read Kierkegaard, but I have been pondering this quote from him for awhile: “The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc – is sure to be noticed.” Maybe the idea of “losing” here implies that something precious just slowly and imperceptibly became smaller and smaller over time. That perhaps it was not even held or recognized in the first place – and therefore could not be freely given. That it was smothered and nearly forgotten, buried beneath layers of burdens and expectations.

    Something has to be really alive in the first place for the loving surrender of it to mean anything. I don’t know if that makes the dying any easier (probably not), but it seems to lead to more life somehow. Which is the whole point! I think I could have been helped back-in-the-day by more talk about Jesus fully living his human life in all its depth and richness – before he willingly gave it up. Nobody seemed to want to linger there for too long, though. Maybe part of this path of suffering is a willingness to see and understand our own true selves rather than just giving up this and giving up that …?

  • Cameron

    I seem to remember Jesus saying something about counting the cost. We do it when we build towers and when we wage war, so why not do it when we take up our crosses?

  • Craig Combs

    Pete, I could not agree more. I think we do not preach the gospel if we do not call men to repentance (turning from sin and self in favor of Christ, and embracing all that he is in his humiliation). Jesus offers rest, but he does not call men to be full of themselves. He calls them to be full of HIM. It is hard for me to preach that way when I look at my own life sometimes. But I know that the examination is needed, and so is the preaching, so I just preach it to myself and hope some of it slops over.

    • Nick Gotts

      Jesus offers rest, but he does not call men to be full of themselves. He calls them to be full of HIM.

      Hmm, I hope he uses plenty of lube. But then, this entire thread (like, indeed, Christianity itself) has a distinct BDSM flavour.

  • Larry

    Pete, you wrote: “Glory and humiliation. Not a formula for getting saved from hell, but a pattern of life modeled by Jesus and destined for his followers.”

    Two sets of questions from an outsider, neither intended rhetorically:

    Is this works righteousness? Or can you experience the glory and humiliation Paul mentions purely as a matter of faith?

    Isn’t one death on the cross enough?

    • Luke Breuer

      If I may:

      (1) There is a difference between works righteousness and saying that “a follower of Christ tends to act this way”. (Especially as his/her faith strengthens.) From certain perspectives this is a subtle difference. Mathew 7:21 applies: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” There is, of course, the question of whether I am trying to do the will of God with my own energies, or by letting the Holy Spirit work through me. This becomes more tractable if we recall people in our lives who were just ‘going through the motions’, vs. people who endured trials and suffering for the sake of the goal toward which they were straining. Such strong belief can be misdirected horribly; this is a message behind the book C.S. Lewis most enjoyed writing: “Till We Have Faces”. That book has a dimension that the strong belief of the 9/11 terrorists didn’t have, so I think it brings more depth to the discussion. In the spirit of Pete, I’m not going to try to resolve this dichotomy neatly. I’m not sure it can be resolved neatly.

      (2) If Jesus’ death were ‘enough’ in all senses, why did Stephen have to be murdered? Why did Paul have to be murdered? What of Church tradition, which has Peter being crucified upside-down? What did Paul mean by Colossians 1:24, where he wrote, “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,”? Paul is saying that Christ’s afflictions were _lacking_! Jesus knew that more laborers were needed and he knew that laboring is not always easy. In my opinion, the absolutely key aspect to suffering in a Christlike style is that you are suffering due to sin _which is not your own_. The Christian does not get to say, “I didn’t cause that mess, so I ain’t helping clean it up.” Paul wrote in II Corinthians 4:11-12: “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. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” It’s almost as if Christlike suffering can be a way to transform the effects of sin into blessing and life. Sometimes that suffering culminates in death by human hand; many times (most of the time?) it does not.

      Also in the spirit of Pete, these aren’t my final answers. I would like my above statements to be tested much more than they have been, to see if they really hold or whether they are mere rationalizations. Somehow we must take seriously verses which strongly support Sola Fide alongside verses such as Jesus’ “If you love me, you will obey what I command.”

      • Larry

        Luke, thanks for responding.

        (1) I understand the idea that faith alone is required to be a follower of Christ, and that a person having that faith may act (even, may be compelled to act) in accordance with that faith. I see nothing like works righteousness in that idea. I could go a step further. I might say that a person might examine his or her own acts, and ask, are these the acts of someone with true faith? Again, I would not see this as works righteousness, as the focus is ultimately on having true faith. But there is a tension here. I see this tension in Bonhoeffer’s “The Cost of Discipleship”. Bonhoeffer writes that “only he who is obedient can believe”, and while Bonhoeffer does not say it explicitly, there’s an idea here that one must first be obedient. Obedience is, I think, a work. I’ll circle back to this in a minute.

        (2) The question of martyrdom is not an easy one. We have Jewish martyrs too. In Judaism, if faced with the choice of death or three sins – idolatry, sexual misconduct (such as incest or adultery) or murder – we are required to choose death. So, I understand that in Christianity, certain people rightly choose death in service to God. But that does not mean that one must or should SEEK death. It meant that under the circumstances of time and place, one may be faced with the choice of death or renunciation of one’s faith, and under those unfortunate circumstances one may choose faith (and death). Presumably, if the Christian martyrs of the past could have saved their lives AND their faith, that is what they would have done. That is not the same as Jesus’ example, because (if I understand correctly) Jesus’ came to Earth to suffer and die.

        The idea you suggest, that (according to Paul) Jesus’ afflictions were “lacking”, is a new one to me. I’m not a Christian, so if this is a standard piece of Christian doctrine, I might be excused for not knowing this. But what strikes me as the essence of Protestantism is the radical (and IMHO, profoundly beautiful) nature of the pronouncement, sola fide. Perhaps there are actions that should naturally follow faith, but if the goal is salvation, then none of these actions are required, or necessary. In fact, one of the primary teachings I derive from Paul is that regarding any action as a “law” is a practice that places one’s salvation in peril. If sola fide, then we need not suffer, and we need not take up the cross (or any cross), and (arguably) we need not imitate Christ.

        As you said so well, these are not final answers – as I’m not Christian, I don’t regard these as answers of any kind. I’m simply trying to understand what I see on the other side of the religious divide. I mean no offense, and my goal is simply to understand how you (pl.) understand.

        • Luke Breuer

          I hope Pete pops in and gives his opinion, but I’m happy to continue this tangent. I haven’t found enough places to discuss things like this where the rule isn’t “groupthink or get out”.

          (1) One pastor I met with explained it like this: “Faith must be a step ahead of works.” Now, if works aren’t to be found nearby, then we must wonder whether that faith is dead (James 2:17). If our world were a gnostic one, then intellectual knowing of Jesus would be sufficient. Neither is. If someone says, “I love Jesus”, and isn’t sharing in Christ’s sufferings, that person is a liar. We can encourage that person to say, “I want to love Jesus”. Or perhaps it is I who must insert ‘want’, for myself. Anyhow, the important thing is that Jesus left work for us to do to accomplish what he wanted to accomplish. Saying that we have faith and not working to accomplish that is ridiculous on its face and nonbelievers have known that all along. On the other hand, the instant we put works before faith, we poison everything.

          (2) I don’t think death ought to be sought by the Christian; nor do I think Jesus sought it. The idea that Jesus came to earth merely to die just doesn’t make sense to me. One little saying is that “Protestants have no need for Jesus’ life and Catholics have no need for his death.” Of course it is hyperbole, but it makes a point. To me, Jesus’ death was necessitated by sin; it was a logical outworking such that he did not have to seek it. If he were not executed for his actions, I think sin wouldn’t have been so bad to need his death. Unfortunately, his death _was_ required for ushering in the Kingdom of God. The Christian is called to participate in said ‘ushering in’; this act may result in death by human hand or it may not. It will certainly result in suffering by human hand which is not our own.

          There seems to be a major undercurrent in American Christianity (I don’t know about Christianity in other countries) that we ought only to suffer the temporal consequences for our own sins. Jesus took care of the eternal consequences, of course. The thing is, though, that following Jesus’ example means suffering for sins not our own. I know I’m repeating myself on this point, but it seems to be the crux of what Pete was saying. Jesus didn’t manufacture suffering for himself to experience; he suffered due to sin—both human and angelic/demonic. To follow this example means to willingly enter into the realm of ‘unfair’—the one that siblings will complain about when one of them gets an iota more than another.

  • Timothy Ricci

    I have Philippians 3:10-11 tattooed on my are so I never forget. Great article Pete!

  • Lana

    OMG Love this!

  • Elizabeth

    This goes along with some thoughts I have had regarding the broad and narrow ways. I don’t think it has to do with praying a prayer, but with our decisions every day. Do I, in whatever circumstance, give up my “rights”? By this, I mean, giving up power over things. I see a lot of people who seem to crave power, but not as many who give power away. But isn’t that what Jesus did? On the cross? He didn’t have to die, but he did. And in that, he gave us our blueprint. And it is the hardest thing we will ever do.

  • Jill

    As I mentioned in a previous comment, my husband converted to Catholicism several years back. I am in no way knowledgeable about all of their doctrine (far from it), but they do seem to have a different approach to suffering than the protestant world at large. It often seems more meaningful to them, not that they enjoy it or try to find it, but that they can use it or let it touch them as a way to grow closer to God.

    The way I see it, we all (Christian or not) will experience suffering in this world. The way to true joy and a deep peace is not to try and avoid suffering at all costs, which we can never do, but to know that there is Someone deeper and more enduring than it. Because Love (God) is ultimately greater than all evil, death, etc. He can actually swallow up and be greater than it. We can tap into this deeper source, uniquely, I think, when we suffer.

    I hope that makes sense to others. So instead of looking at the whole “taking up your cross” with dread, it can be looked at in another way that can actually bring comfort.

    A few more thoughts, this concept is true for so many things. If we love others (spouse, children, friends, etc), these relationships bring great joy and meaning, but they also bring the cross or sacrifice. I couldn’t imagine my life without other people in it that I love, but sacrifice to self should always be a part of them. In order for these relationships to thrive, there must be some sacrifice involved. I often fail, but recognize it is something to strive for.

    I recently watched some you tube clips from Father Robert Barron, a Catholic priest who comments on a large variety of issues. I saw one that he did on responding to the tragedy at Sandy Hook and I recall the second half of the commentary covered the cross and suffering and our response to it. I probably wouldn’t do it justice trying to describe his take on it, but I recall that it resonated with me and helped to bring meaning to me.

  • Mike Sangrey

    I’ve often noticed the difference between WHO our so-called evangelistic message appeals to in comparison to WHO Jesus appealed to. Obviously, there’s quite a number of examples of Jesus ministering to those in need. However, what about Simon the Zealot? It’s hard to imagine a personality that would support such a moniker suddenly saying, “Gosh, I’ve had it rough. I’m going to throw my lot in with this Rabbi guy and get a more comfortable life. And, hey, I get out of hell for free!” Paul would be another very good example. In other words, our Gospel message doesn’t appeal to…how can I say this…real men. It doesn’t appeal to anyone, male or female, who wants something bigger than themselves to stretch to, reach to, excel to.
    It seems to me a message that says, “The king of the world has arrived. You wanna join his band? Then there’s some things you had better know upfront:
    1. It ain’t gonna be easy. It will be painful. And filled with sacrifice.
    2. It’s NOT about power (in the sense of violent force).
    3. It’s about weak things like love, hope, joy, faith–things easily thwarted. But, things VERY difficult to do well. So, you’re gonna be stretched in ways you can’t now imagine. And afterward, you’ll still scratch your head.
    4. It’s gonna take a very long time.
    5. etc.
    It seems to me the “pray the prayer, get out of hell” introduction to Christianity misses the entire point of selfless Christianity. Frankly, it’s self-centered, if you ask me. Can the Gospel message be self-centered?
    Thank you, Peter.

    • Jon Hughes

      Most of us are not going to be like the apostle Paul – the lazy Cretans would be a better starting point. It’s mildly ironic that we’re having this discussion about ‘difficulties’ and ‘suffering’ in the Christian life from the comfort of our armchairs, cup of coffee in hand, roof over our heads, central heating, and for those of us who live in our mothers’ basements, a nice home-cooked meal. What’s on t.v. tonight?

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  • mick

    Good post. Never been here before. In one sense, you are right that this is not a very appealing message in our church/non church culture. However, embedded in this message and practice patterned after the life of Christ implies that we must also be made for that. Our initial reflex response to this message, either as an unbeliever or a believer who has been in churches where this has not been preached, is certainly to pull back. Yet, for those have even the slightest “ears to hear”, there is something that rins true about this. I know so many people who are disillusioned and are suffering in a variety of ways in our culture but not redemptively or without hope. Suffering, whether physically, emotionally, relationally, economically, existentially, etc, (or the consequences of our attempts to anesthesize ourselves to it ) is already happening. Jesus invites us into his redemptive suffering and graciously invites us to also share in his glory.

    • Nick Gotts

      Our initial reflex response to this message, either as an unbeliever or a believer who has been in churches where this has not been preached, is certainly to pull back.

      Speaking as an unbeliever, no, it isn’t, because such a response would first require one to find the message credible.

  • John Wallace

    Hi Pete,
    Good article thanks for sharing this with us. Check out my blog post titled “Did Jesus Really Speak More About Hell Than Heaven? ” which is relavent to this. Here’s the link:

    Comments much appreciated.


  • Matt

    Nicely written, but most sobering verse?

    Personally I feel it pales compared to Hebrews 5:8.. “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered.” (ASB) “He” being Jesus.

    Still, if it purifies in me obedience unto my King and eternal life in His glorious presence, bring it on.