The account of Paul’s persecution of the church in Acts attests that Paul’s aggressive attack on the church included threats of murder and imprisonment (Acts 8:3; 9:1; 22:4–6; 26:10–11). According to Acts, Paul was identified (7:58) with those who attacked the Jewish Christians for speaking against the temple and against the law (6:11–14).
Since he had worked to achieve complete conformity to these rules, leaving nothing undone, no outsider could blame him, nor did he blame himself
Being conformed to his death can be interpreted in several ways: (1) Paul may be referring to his martyrdom. Just as the sufferings of Jesus led to his death on the cross, so also Paul’s sufferings led to his execution.145 Paul’s reference to resurrection from the dead in the next verse may indicate that he is thinking about his physical death and resurrection. Yet, Paul seems to be viewing his whole life, not just the end of his life, as a process of being conformed to Christ’s death by his participation in Christ’s suffering. In other words, this last phrase in verse 10 explains what is happening to Paul during his whole experience of participation in Christ’s sufferings.
(2) Being conformed to his death may also be interpreted as a reference to the inward experience of dying to sin by being united with Christ in his death: “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin” (Rom 6:6).146 Certainly Paul is concerned in this letter with being free from sin, pure and blameless (1:10; 2:14). But the difficulty with interpreting this phrase in the light of the parallel with Rom 6:1–6 is that it limits the reference of being conformed to his death to the beginning of life in Christ since this passage refers to being united with Christ’s death through baptism: “all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death” (Rom 6:3). Paul is not referring to the beginning of his life in Christ, but to his entire experience of participation in Christ’s sufferings as a process of being conformed to his death.147
(3) Being conformed to his death may be interpreted as a reference to Paul’s obedience in his faithful proclamation of the gospel of Christ. The link between partnership (koinōnia) in the gospel and participation (koinōnia) in his sufferings connects sufferings to the proclamation of the gospel, and those sufferings for the sake of the gospel are the means by which Paul is conformed to the death of Christ. Paul’s reference to Christ’s death is primarily a reference to Christ’s obedience: he humbled himself by becoming obedient unto death (2:8). The main point of application that Paul takes from the Christ hymn is obedience: immediately after the hymn he calls his readers to obedience (2:12). Their obedience will cause them to shine like stars in the sky as they hold firmly to the word of life (2:15–16). Paul calls them to express their obedience by living in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ (1:27). Their obedience will inevitably cause them to face opposition and to suffer (1:28–29). And their suffering will continually shape them to be like Christ, who was obedient unto death.
These three interpretations do not need to be set against each other as separate alternatives. Paul’s experience of being conformed to Christ’s death may well include his sense of facing his own execution, his awareness that he was baptized into the death of Christ to be freed from sin, and his appreciation that his sufferings for the gospel are shaping his obedience so that he will reflect Christ, who was obedient unto death.