When doing any kind of experiment or making any kind of change, you need to establish a “baseline”, a starting point that serves as the one, known point of measurement that everything else will be compared to. Whether you’re studying climate change, time zones, altitude, typography, medicine, or physics, you need somewhere to start. You couldn’t do physics if the force of gravity or the speed of light changed from day to day. You couldn’t perform medicine if you didn’t know what healthy looks like. If you’ve ever tried to write a note on a piece of paper without lines, you know how wonky and wobbly your words get without them. You need a baseline to start with – something to compare everything else to.
Please open up to Hebrews 12:1–2. I’m reading out of the English Standard Version and before I begin I want you to notice the heading that the editors have given this section: “Jesus, Founder and Perfecter of Our Faith”. The “founder” of something is the one who originates something, initiates it, establishes it. It comes from the word “found” where we get the word “foundation” meaning “bottom” or “base” or the “lowest part”. The word “perfecter” is the word meaning to make perfect, make complete or totally finish.
This passage will speak about Jesus as, the “Founder and Perfecter of our faith”, meaning the One who came up with the plan of salvation, who set the rules for salvation, who laid the groundwork for salvation, and who became the foundation, the baseline, the bedrock of salvation. But Jesus is special. He not only established the rules and laid the foundation upon which everything stands – but He actually came and lived by those rules, walked the earth as a human being, faced everything this world has to offer, and did it so perfectly that it can never be done better.
Think of the NHL. There’s a big difference between the person who invented hockey, the coach of the team, and the individual players, right? If you had a competition between the guy who invented hockey back in 1875 and even an average player today, there would be no contest. The “founder” of hockey could never keep up. Even if the contest was between the coach and the player it might be a little more of a contest but the player would still dominate.
But each has a role. The league sets the rules so everyone knows how to play. The player has natural talent and practiced skills in order to play the game. And the coach studies the rules, observes the game, and critiques and organizes the players they can learn and grow beyond what they would be able to do for themselves. But none of them are perfect. Hockey coaches and players compare themselves to Scotty Bowman, Wayne Gretzky or Bobby Orr, but none of them were perfect.
What makes Jesus amazing, and what we are going to talk about today, is that Jesus not only sets the rules but plays the game perfectly and knows exactly how to coach everyone to do the same. Jesus is who we compare everything we understand about God, salvation, and life as a human being to. He’s the prototype, the standard, the baseline, the foundation, the founder, and the perfecter.
The preacher of Hebrews, as he is trying to encourage believers who are going through hard times, after giving a whole list of examples of people who remained faithful through difficulty, says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
In other words, as great as the examples of other believers like Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Gideon are, they are neither the founder nor the perfecter. They didn’t write the rules and they all blew it big time – and more than once. They are as much examples of God’s faithfulness to sinners as they are examples of people who kept the faith.
So, who are we to look to so we can understand how to “run the race set before us”? Do we look to Moses who took 80 years of training and then messed up in the end so that even he wasn’t allowed to see the Promised Land? Do we look to Gideon, who, though he followed God into great victories actually ended his life as a self-glorifying apostate who turned away from God and led the people into false worship practices? No. We look to Jesus who not only founded but perfected our faith.
I’m not a runner, as you can tell, but I like the illustration of “the race” that he uses here. Think of one of those Ironman Triathlon races. They need to know which way to go so they don’t get lost, how to pace themselves so they don’t waste energy, how to manage the ups and downs so they don’t get hurt, what to eat and drink, how to press forward when their body hurts, how to dress so they don’t chafe or carry extra weight, and so much more. Imagine if they had a video of someone who had run the race perfectly, and then was given the offer to have that person coach them, even to run and swim and bike alongside them?
Who should we compare our lives to in order to see if things are going right or wrong, for how to deal with what’s happening, and who should we ask for help when we don’t know what to do? We look “to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.” He’s wrote the rulebook, established the path, walked it perfectly, and offers to walk with us as we do it ourselves
How This Affects Me
Now, before we get into the Heidelberg section of the message today I want to tell you why this point of theology is such a big deal – especially to me right now.
Lately, I’ve been struggling a lot with the kindness of God. The Bible, especially the psalms, talks a lot about God’s “lovingkindness” (Isa 63:7, Ps 69:16). The Bible says that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and we know that one of the definitions of love from 1 Corinthians 13 is that love is “kind” (vs 4).
You all know a lot of my story (and my story of late) so I won’t get into it, but over the past while here I haven’t really felt like God has been very “kind” to me, my family, some of my friends, the church, other people I hear about in the world. Now, I totally believe that God is “loving” and “good” and “just” and that all things work out “for the good of those who love Him” (Rom 8:28), but sometimes that doesn’t feel like “kindness”.
A good king can send a soldier off to die in a war for the sake of the kingdom, depriving a family of their father, but for the greater good. A good coach can make an athlete workout until their body hurts or until they get sick and literally can’t get up. A good martial arts instructor can give their student a swift kick in the guts, doubling them over in pain, as part of their training. I understand that. God as good creator, good king, good coach, the founder and perfecter of faith, allowing hard things, difficult things, painful things – loss and suffering — for the sake of His name, His glory, His kingdom and His people. I get that, I really do.
But it’s hard to see that as “kind” and it’s been a real struggle for me lately. And Satan has been chipping away at my faith and trust in God because I allowed that doubt, that thought, that confusion, to dominate my mind. It led to resentment with God, anger with God, distrust of God. It affected my prayer life. It’s been a struggle and I’ve talked to a lot of people about it – my counsellor, mentor, friends, other pastors – and they’ve all tried to help, but I’ve been stuck.
What really helped was a message I heard this week from a man named Doctor Paul Tripp who spoke at The Gospel Coalition Conference about the danger of viewing God through the lens of our circumstances instead of viewing our circumstances through the lens of God. He talks about times when because of what we are going through, we bring God into the court of our judgement and judge Him as being unfaithful, uncaring and unkind – which is an inversion of the proper theological process.
“It’s tempting, when you are going through dramatic things that you cannot escape to… let those function in your mind and heart as a way of understanding God. Danger! Danger! Danger! You don’t ever allow your experiences to interpret who God is. You let who God says He is interpret your experience. And that’s warfare.”
Now, I don’t want to re-preach his sermon because I hope to share it with you all one day, but I want you to know that’s the war-front I’ve been facing for a long while now. In my fatigue and sadness and anger, I have, too many times, fallen into the temptation of inverting my theological process. Something bad happens to me and I say, “Since I feel bad, and God knows and could do something about it but hasn’t taken away my problem, God must, therefore, be unkind.” That’s inverted theology.
What I’m supposed to do, what a Christian is supposed to do, is, when the difficult times come, is to speak the gospel to myself, speak truth to myself, speak the Bible to myself, and let the surety of who I know God has become the tool that interprets what I’m going through.
“Since I know God is kind, and I know God could do something about it but hasn’t taken away my problem even if I feel bad, God must, therefore, be doing something kind – even if I don’t understand it.”
I was getting it the wrong way around.
Heidelberg Catechism LD16
This is one of the advantages of going through this section of the Apostles Creed as taught in the Heidelberg, especially during the season of Lent when we are turning our minds to the sufferings of Christ. In my temptation and confusion of saying “God must be unkind because my life hurts right now” what I was really saying was, “Something has gone wrong with God, or my understanding of God. He’s not who I thought He was. Something is out of control. This isn’t normal. This isn’t right. This isn’t how it’s supposed to go. This goes against the rules, this isn’t the way the race is run, the coach is wrong about this one.”
But is it wrong? If Christians go through suffering, does that mean something has gone wrong with God? Is this how the race is supposed to go? The invitation of our scripture today is to “look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” to see if that’s what happened to Him. Because if it’s normal for Jesus, the One whom I’m following and who did it perfectly, then it must be normal for me.
Let’s look at the questions in the Heidelberg for the Lord’s Day 16, questions 40-44 and see what it says there about what we’re talking about today.
Question 40 says,
“Why was it necessary for Christ to humble himself even unto death?”
and the answer comes,
“Because of the justice and truth of God satisfaction for our sins could be made in no other way than by the death of the Son of God.”
We’ve talked about that a lot. Why did Jesus have to die? Because “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23) and there was no other way to pay them.
Question 41 says,
“Why was he buried?”
and the answer comes
“His burial testified that he had really died.”
That makes sense.
Then, having what Jesus went through, Question 42 says,
“Since Christ has died for us, why do we still have to die?”
and the answer comes,
“Our death is not a payment for our sins, but it puts an end to sin and is an entrance into eternal life.”
There’s more to say here, but for our purposes today I want you to notice how personal the Heidelberg makes these theological statements, reinforcing the truth that since Jesus is the founder and perfecter, the baseline and the model, of our faith, then it makes sense that we will go through what He went through and our experience will have a purpose because His had a purpose.
Question 43 gets even more personal saying,
“What further benefit do we receive from Christ’s sacrifice and death on the cross?”
Almost sounds selfish, doesn’t it? Sure, sure, Jesus died on the cross and saved me from Satan, death and hell and has invited me into an eternally glorious relationship with Him and the Father forever in the perfection of paradise…. but what else do I get? The answer comes,
“Through Christ’s death our old nature is crucified, put to death, and buried with him, so that the evil desires of the flesh may no longer reign in us, but that we may offer ourselves to him as a sacrifice of thankfulness.”
This is straight out of Romans 6 which we’ve already talked about. Jesus died so that the sinful nature within us could be destroyed and so we could live free from the curse.
But now look at question 44,
“Why is there added: He descended into hell?”
Why would the Apostles Creed, the oldest and most trustworthy creed in Christian history include the line “He descended into hell?” This is a question that theologians have been arguing about for a long time and I don’t want to get into that argument right now, but I want you to notice how the Heidelberg’s answer applies to what we’re talking about today.
Why do we need to know that Jesus went through hell? The answer given is,
“In my greatest sorrows and temptations I may be assured and comforted that my Lord Jesus Christ, by his unspeakable anguish, pain, terror, and agony, which he endured throughout all his sufferings but especially on the cross, has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell.”
In short, Jesus went through hell to found and perfect our faith. He went through hell, took the full weight of the wrath of God against sin, so we wouldn’t have to. He made salvation possible through His blood and suffering. That is the foundation, the bedrock, of our faith. But He didn’t just found our faith, He perfected it. In other words, He went through the sufferings of Hell so that, when we are in our greatest times of sorrow and temptation we can know that Jesus has faced worse than us, has taken those pains upon Himself, and has offered to walk with us through them until He delivers us through them in the end.
Suffering is Normal & Necessary, but not Ultimate
That’s the lens through which we are to interpret our difficult circumstances. Why did Jesus have to die and be buried? To save us. Why did Jesus have to suffer? Not only to save us, but to show us His love, commitment, and that suffering in this life is normal and necessary, but not ultimate.
Suffering is normal. That means everyone will face it. If God in human flesh, the most perfect being to ever live, faced suffering and taught that his followers would suffer, then it must be normal. God the Father loves Jesus His Son more than anything else, cares for His Son more than anyone else, and would never cause His Son to go through any unnecessary sufferings, He would never be unkind to His Son, and yet The Father put Jesus through great suffering for His whole life. That means the suffering was not only normal but necessary.
Hebrews 2:1 says it this way,
“For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.”
But even though that suffering was normal and necessary, it was not ultimate. Jesus came to suffer and die, but that wasn’t to be the end of the story. It says that Jesus founded our salvation through suffering, but one doesn’t stop building at the foundation. One lays a foundation in order to build something. Why did the Son of God lay the foundation of salvation? In order that the Son of God might “bring many sons to glory”! Christ’s sufferings were normal, they were necessary, but they were not ultimate.
And so, since Jesus is the founder and perfecter of our faith, the baseline, the model, the one who ran the race perfectly, the coach who can show me how to do it, then, when I am going through something difficult in my life and I start to ask myself, “Is this normal? Has something gone wrong? Has God lost control? Has God become unkind?” I must look to the baseline – look to Jesus – and interpret my circumstances and understanding of God through that lens. To let who God says He is, how God says He operates, how He operated in the life of His Son Jesus, interpret how I see my trials, temptations, and sufferings.
How to Endure
Look back at the text of Hebrews 12:1-2 one more time. It says,
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
“…Who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross…” The cross of Christ represents the greatest suffering, the greatest injustice, the worst series of hours in human history. We talked about them a couple of weeks ago. How could Jesus endure such terrible things? Because He had his eye on the joy set before Him. He despised the shame and sufferings of the cross, He disregarded them, thought little of them, in comparison with the joy of what would happen through those sufferings.
He would win the souls millions, maybe billions of the people He loves and establish His Kingdom on earth. He would show the perfection of His holiness and set the perfect example through them. He would glorify God through His obedience and humility and conquer Satan, death and Hell once and for all. He would usher in the birth of the church. And by going through those sufferings He would be raised up to glory (Phil 2:5-11).
But not only that. Not only would He be raised up to glory, but all those who would follow Him. He was founding, paving the path, for His followers to achieve something they could never do on their own. He was making possible something that no one could ever attain. He would obey the rules so well, run the race so well, and be awarded such a prize that anyone who believes in Him would be automatically considered a winner of the race too.
This is easy to forget when we focus on our trials and sufferings. It’s easy to interpret God through the lens of our sufferings instead of interpreting our suffering through the lens of Jesus.
Conclusion: Romans 8:18-39
Let me close by reading one of my favourite passages of scripture which says this so clearly to those who are going through difficult times. How is it possible to go through suffering? How can we endure? The same way Jesus did – by keeping our eye on the joy that is set before us. Turn to Romans 8:18–39 which speaks of all these things – suffering, endurance, the life of Christ, struggles with faith, Jesus’ glorification, and ours, and our trust in God.
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
If you recall back to the last series of weeks in our study of the Heidelberg Catechism you’ll remember that we’ve been talking a lot about the question, “Who is Jesus?”. This part of the Heidelberg is going through the Apostles Creed and we are on the second section that speaks of what Christians believe about Jesus. It says,
“I believe in Jesus Christ, his only-begotten Son, our Lord; he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell. On the third day he arose from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.”
We’ve already covered a lot of ground going through it word by word, learning what the name Jesus means, why the title Christ is so important, what “only-begotten, Son” means, etc. Today we are on the part that says Christians believe that Jesus Christ, “suffered under Pontius pilot” and it is an extremely important teaching because a lot of people stumble over that word, “suffered”.
Turn to Mark 8:27-38 and let’s read there. We’re going to retread a little of the ground we’ve already covered but it’s important. Start in verse 27,
“And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they told him, ‘John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.’ And he asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Christ.’”
We’ve already talked about the importance of the title “Christ” and how it is the same word as “Messiah” or “Chosen One” and why Peter’s declaration was so important, but I want you to notice what Jesus says to His disciples next. Start in verse 30:
“And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him. And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly.”
So Peter declares that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, and then Jesus starts to unpack what that means. He describes what the rest of His life on earth would look like, preparing His followers for what would be happening during that year. He tells them of how this would be His final journey to Jerusalem, how difficult it would be, how much rejection He would face, and how the leaders of the city, even the priests and the scholars who knew God’s word best, would challenge Him, despise Him, reject Him, and ultimately work to get Him executed. But to remember that wouldn’t be the final defeat as in three days He would rise again from death.
I’m not sure Peter heard that last part because, what is Peter’s response?
“And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.”
Peter, and likely the rest of the disciples’ – especially Judas’ Iscariot’s – concept of Christ’s mission was a very different one. Their idea was that this march into Jerusalem would be one of victory and conquest, overthrowing Rome, re-establishing Israel as a great world power, Jesus calling down angels and fire and spreading health and wealth to the people, kicking out all the bad rulers and putting all 12 disciples as the new regents under Him. But Jesus completely shuts down that idea.
What Must Happen
It all comes down to one, very important word in verse 31: “must”. “…he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things…”
This is the question the burns in the minds of so many. Why “must” suffering be a part of life? Why “must” the Messiah, the Christ, the most perfect, most loving, kindest, most sinless person in the world, the King of Kings “suffer many things”?
Our study of the Heidelberg Catechism answers this question in three important ways. Question 37 asks, “What do you confess when you say that he suffered?” Question 38 asks, “Why did he suffer under Pontius Pilate as judge?” and Question 39 asks, “Does it have a special meaning that Christ was crucified and did not die in a different way?”
If I were to re-word those questions to be a little more applicable to us today I would say, “What does it mean to suffer?” “What purpose did the suffering have?” and “Wasn’t there a better way?”
These are all questions we ask ourselves every time we are hit with pain, sadness, sickness or difficulty, aren’t they? We ask ourselves, “Is this really suffering I’m going through? Can I really call it suffering? What does it mean to suffer?” And then, once we answer that we move on to, “Does this suffering have meaning? Is there a reason for it? Why am I, or why is the person I care about, going through this?” Then, once we’ve sort of settled that in our minds a bit, maybe starting to realize that this suffering has a purpose, that it is bearing some kind of fruit, that God must have a reason for it, we all ask God the same question: “Isn’t there an easier way? Is this the best way? Surely this level of suffering isn’t necessary for God to accomplish whatever He is doing. is it?”
The Sufferings of Christ
For answers to these questions, we look to the life of Christ. The Heidelberg’s answer to the first question, “What do you confess when you say that he suffered?” is,
“During all the time he lived on earth, but especially at the end, Christ bore in body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race. Thus, by his suffering, as the only atoning sacrifice, he has redeemed our body and soul from everlasting damnation, and obtained for us the grace of God, righteousness, and eternal life.”
What does that mean? We talked a little about it last week, right? I wanted to spend some extra time last week really contemplating the need for Christ’s suffering and how it was the only way to destroy the curse of sin. If you recall we covered 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” That’s the second part of this answer, that it was only by Jesus’ sufferings, only by becoming the dragon for us, only by facing endless temptation and pain, only by having God’s wrath against sin poured out on Him on the cross, that we were able to be redeemed, bought back, from our slavery to Satan, rescued from eternal death and everlasting damnation, and are now able to live as new creatures, free from the curse, able to live righteously forever.
I don’t want to go over that again, but instead, want to concentrate instead on the first part of the answer about Christ’s sufferings. What do we mean when we say that Jesus suffered? The answer here is that every moment of Jesus life, from birth to death, was of unending suffering. Is that true? At this time of year, we often talk about the Passion of the Christ, the last week of great sufferings, but was Jesus’ whole life a passion walk?
That’s the testimony of scripture. John 1:10-11 says, “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” Isaiah 53:3 says the Messiah would be, “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief…” Jesus knew rejection, grief, and sorrow very well, and not just in His last week, but His whole life.
When He was born his parents could find no good place to stay so He was born in a laid in a feeding trough (Luke 2:7). Then, not long later, when he was only a couple years old, Jesus barely escaped being murdered by King Herod (Matt. 2:14) and had to live as a refugee. When He came back He lived in Nazareth, a place that some people didn’t apparently care for much (John 1:46). It is thought that his father died when he was young because we hear nothing more of him, which is why Jesus waited until he was older to start His earthly ministry. Then when He did, His family called Him crazy and tried to shut him down (Mark 3:21) and when he came back to Nazareth to spread the gospel, they chased him out of town so they could throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:29). For his whole life, Jesus knew thirst (Matt 4:2), exhaustion (John 4:6), poverty, and homelessness (Luke 9:58). I think of Luke 19 where Jesus wanders off by Himself to a hillside to look at the city of Jerusalem, which He loved so much, and we see Him burst into tears.
The devil tempted Him harder and more than any other person (Matt 4:1-2) and his enemies hated him more than anyone else (Heb 12:3). He was falsely accused many times of being a glutton, drunkard, blasphemer, and child of the devil (Matt 11:19, 9:3, 12:24). His disciples were weak in faith and support, and people around him only liked them for what they could get out of Him and rejected Him repeatedly when He wouldn’t perform for them. Near the end, when we see Him in the Garden of Gethsemane we see Him alone, forsaken by all His disciples, and so overcome with sorrow and fear that in His agony He literally sweat blood (Luke 22:44).
And that’s not even speaking of the false trials, beatings, mocking, and sufferings He faced before being tortured to death in the worst way humans have ever devised – a Roman cross.
And all of this suffering – every bit of it – was totally undeserved. In our sufferings we sometimes know that we deserve it, right? We mess up a relationship, get addicted to something, lash out in anger, don’t plan ahead enough, spend too much money, and it causes suffering in our lives. We complain, and we try to blame, but we know deep down that it was our own fault that we’re suffering right now. Theologically, we know that all sin leads to suffering – that our sinful souls, even when we don’t realize it, are always getting us in trouble, pulling us from God, leading us into sin, causing ripple effects of suffering in our lives and those around us.
Jesus never deserved any of His sufferings. None of them. He never did anything wrong. He had no sinful nature. Everything He suffered was undeserved. And He faced it perfectly! And when He was given the option to take the easy way out, to avoid suffering, He never took it. Why?
Because the Christ, “…the Son of Man must suffer many things…” That was His mission. To face a lifetime of suffering that only got worse and worse. As the Christ, Jesus had a job: to suffer. He would be the final, spotless, sacrificial lamb whose blood would make the final atonement, the final payment, for sin.
Turn with me to Isaiah 53, the prophecy about the Messiah’s mission, and start in verse 3:
“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.”
That’s us it’s talking about. We’re the transgressors, the guilty. And the payment for sin was paid not only by Jesus on the cross, but by a lifetime of suffering.
But why suffering? Why couldn’t God just declare us all free and sinless and let it go? Why did Jesus have to go through all that? The Heidelberg asks it this way, “Why did he suffer under Pontius Pilate as judge?” The answer,
“Though innocent, Christ was condemned by an earthly judge, and so he freed us from the severe judgment of God that was to fall on us.”
Jesus, the innocent, was declared guilty, so that we, the guilty could be declared innocent. Let us read John 19:1–16 together and see what Jesus faced,
“Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him. And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe. They came up to him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and struck him with their hands. Pilate went out again and said to them, ‘See, I am bringing him out to you that you may know that I find no guilt in him.’ So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Behold the man!’ When the chief priests and the officers saw him, they cried out, ‘Crucify him, crucify him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no guilt in him.’ The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.’ When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid. He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, ‘Where are you from?’ But Jesus gave him no answer. So Pilate said to him, ‘You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.’
From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, ‘If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.’ So when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Stone Pavement, and in Aramaic Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, ‘Behold your King!’ They cried out, ‘Away with him, away with him, crucify him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but Caesar.’ So he delivered him over to them to be crucified.”
Pilate knew Jesus was innocent but was too afraid to defend Him. He had Jesus cruelly and unjustly flogged in hopes it would appease the bloodlust of the crowd, but it didn’t work. Jesus knew what would happen. He knew that God had already ordained that He would be crucified and that Pilate’s resolve would soon give out. But Jesus had to be declared guilty and condemned to a sinners death so that He could die in our place. He was the representative for all humanity, the new Adam, the scapegoat, the advocate for His people, the shepherd who would protect his sheep, the leader who would take the blame on behalf of His people.
Why? So anyone who would believe in Him could escape the judgement of the Greater Judge, God Almighty, who has decreed in Romans 6:23 that “the wages [the payment] of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And the only payment for sin must be suffering. Everyone agrees with this, even if they don’t like it.
If someone commits a crime, our internal sense of justice demands they make it right. If someone steals, they must pay it back and then face a punishment. If someone murders, they must be held accountable. If someone wrongs us, hurts us, abuses us or someone we love, our heart always cries out for justice. We never, ever want them to get away with it? Why? Because God wrote justice that into our very DNA. Sin deserves suffering. The suffering must be in accordance with a crime. We wouldn’t give someone life in prison for stealing a candy bar. That would be unjust. We wouldn’t give a $10 fine to someone who murdered a whole family. That would be unjust.
And so, we ask ourselves, what is the appropriate amount of suffering that the perfect Judge, God Almighty, would pour out upon Jesus, for the entire weight of sin held against millennia of human sinners? It would be terrible beyond imagination.
Why the Cross?
Which leads us to the final question: Why the cross? Wasn’t there a better way? Did it have to be so serious, so severe, so terrible? “Does it have a special meaning that Christ was crucified and did not die in a different way?”
The Heidelberg’s answer is,
“Yes. Thereby I am assured that he took upon himself the curse which lay on me, for a crucified one was cursed by God.”
Why couldn’t Jesus get a slap on the wrist, pay a fine, or just die of old age? Hebrews 9:22 says, “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” And Galatians 3:13 says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’…” (That is a quote from Deuteronomy 21:23.) One reason it was inconceivable for Peter and the disciples to think of Jesus being crucified was because to be hanged like that was to be considered cursed of God. And how could the Messiah be cursed? It made no sense.
But it makes sense to us. He was cursed for our sake, bled for our sake, was disgraced for our sake, because as He hung there He was taking our place. God placed our curse on Him. God took His blood for ours. It was the only way.
How can we apply this today? Turn back to our passage in Mark 8:34–38. After Jesus explains that He must suffer, He must take up a cross, because it is the only way, He says this:
“And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’”
Jesus gives us some options here. Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus into His sufferings and thereby be saved – or run from suffering, try to save your own life and then lose it. Trade your soul for what the world offers, or give up what the world and come to Jesus who can save your soul. Live ashamed of Jesus and His words, argue that suffering is pointless and sin is helpful, turn your back on Jesus, and then be rejected in the end, or live in a way that shows that you believe what Jesus says. 1 Corinthians 1:18 says,
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
Those questions pester us every day: What does it mean to suffer? Why is there suffering in the world? Why do Christians suffer? Why is it happening? Does it have a purpose? And isn’t there an better, easier way?
And when they plague us, we must look to the life of Jesus because in Him we find the answer. Jesus said that those who follow Him will follow in His footsteps. His path, the one He must tread, would be to obey God by suffering, dying, and then be raised again in victory. And so He says, anyone who follows Him must tread the same path. Obey Jesus by picking up your cross, suffering in this sinful world, die to yourself, die to sin, and then allow God to raise you to new life.
Why do Christians suffer? Because this world is still full of sin. Jesus said so, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
Does suffering have a purpose? Yes. How do we know? Because Jesus’ suffering, which was the worst tragedy in history had purpose. And God promises that all of our sufferings will not go unnoticed, unrewarded, and will always have meaning. 2 Corinthians 4:17 says, “This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” And Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
And is there a better way? If there was, that’s what God would have done. Jesus demonstrates that none of our sufferings, no matter how terrible, will go to waste. They all have a purpose. He is not cruel, He is compassionate and merciful.
Our feelings betray us, our hearts give out, our bodies long for release, but when we are Christians, our spirits can know – even in the midst of suffering – that God can be trusted. Consider Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Afraid, overwhelmed, weeping, sweating blood, not wanting to face the cross. His body was falling apart, He wanted an escape, release, freedom from suffering, for some other way. Jesus knows how you feel. But what did He say, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42) Hebrews 2:10 says that Jesus’ sufferings had a purpose and so do ours.
“For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.”
That’s all we can do. Tell God that it hurts, that we wish it could be different, but then say, “But I trust you.” I trust you know what you’re doing, that you will punish those who have wronged me, that you will restore all that was taken from me, that you will reward those who have been overlooked, that you will strengthen those who are weak, raise up the humble, give wisdom to those who lack it, establish and hold fast everyone who has chosen to build their lives upon your foundation.
The question is, looking at the life of Christ, “Do you trust Him in your suffering?” and “Will you pick up your cross daily and follow Him?”
John McCrae and Flanders Fields
In Canada and around the world, the poppy has long been a symbol of the immeasurable sacrifice made by those who have died defending and preserving the rights and freedoms of others. It was a Canadian physician, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae who made it a symbol of Remembrance Day. I did some reading about him and learned about how his poem came about.
In April 1915, John McCrae was in the trenches near Ypres, Belgium, an area traditionally called Flanders, where some of the heaviest fighting of the First World War took place/ During what was known as the Second Battle of Ypres neither side was giving way. On April 22, the enemy used deadly chlorine gas against Allied troops in an attempt to break the stalemate. Despite the debilitating effects of the gas, Canadian soldiers fought relentlessly and held the line for another 16 days.
In the trenches, John McCrae tended to hundreds of wounded soldiers every day. He was constantly surrounded by the dead and the dying. We can get an understanding of what saw by reading part of a letter he sent to his mother around that time.
“The general impression in my mind is of a nightmare. We have been in the most bitter of fights. For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds…..And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.” (Prescott. Flanders Fields: The Story of John McCrae, p. 98)
On the day before he wrote his famous poem, one of McCrae’s closest friends was killed and buried in a makeshift grave with a simple wooden cross. Because of the absence of a chaplain, he himself presided over the funeral. Wild poppies were already beginning to bloom between the crosses marking the many graves. We can imagine him meditating over what his friend, and the many soldiers who had fallen before him, would say to those who were still living in the trenches –holding the line. It was through his poem that he gave them a voice. (http://www.vac-acc.gc.ca/remembers/sub.cfm?source=history/firstwar/mccrae/flanders)
It reads like this:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
During the summer of 1917 Lieutenant Colonel McCrae was troubled by attacks of asthma and bronchitis, possibly aggravated by the chlorine gas he inhaled at Ypres. On January 23rd,1918 he was admitted to hospital with pneumonia. He died five days later at the age of 46 and was buried in Wimereux Cemetery north of (Bull-oy ne) Boulogne, not far from Flanders fields.
No Greater Love
Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn 15:13) We take time on Remembrance Day to honour those who have laid down their lives serving our country. It is a terrible loss when a soldier dies in battle, and we will often say that their life was “taken from them”. An enemy, took this soldier’s life. But their life was not only taken from them – it was given by them, laid down by them, because they were willing to put themselves in harm’s way – standing in front of the innocent, defending their countrymen, placing themselves where the danger would be greatest, knowing what could happen, so others could be safe. Their sacrifice was a choice. One that ought to be remembered.
Jesus Christ and The Cross
As Christians, one thing we do every week – not only once a year, but every Sunday – is to remember the One who willingly laid down His life not to defend our nation, but to save our souls; Jesus Christ. What makes Jesus’s sacrifice different than that of the soldiers’ is that we can never say that anyone “took Jesus’ life”. The symbol of the Poppy is a powerful symbol of sacrifice and dedication, but it pales in comparison to the most perfect symbol of sacrifice – the cross.
In John 10:17-18 Jesus says, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” We often say that God sent Jesus to die on the cross, but we must also remember that Jesus is God and chose, even though He didn’t have to, and could have walked away at any time, to give His life in our place.
We are the ones who committed cosmic treason by sinning against God. We are the ones who deserve death and Hell. We are the ones who should have received our just punishment. Yet, because of Jesus’ love for us, He was willing to literally give His life for ours.
It was neither Satan, nor the Jews nor the Romans who put Jesus on the cross. His life was not taken by someone else. Jesus put Himself there. He had the power and authority to stop His suffering at any time, but He stayed out of obedience to God and love for us so we might be saved from damnation.
A soldier’s life and death can inspire great things. Politics and worldviews around the globe have been shaped by the death of individuals and battalions who have fallen in battle. World leaders, religious authorities, and common people everywhere, can point to the soldier as an example of bravery, tenacity, excellence, dedication, and sacrifice.
But the Christian understands this best of all because we see all those attributes most perfectly in Jesus. It is His perfect sacrifice that compels Christians to worship, serve, pray and give their own lives to Jesus in return. The fact that Jesus exchanged His life for mine is the most powerful message I have ever heard. That kind of sacrificial love boggles the mind. I don’t any believer is fully able to process what Jesus has done for them.
Martyrdom and Persecution
But, there are some who can more than others. In the same way that a soldier understands Remembrance Day better than most, it is those under persecution for their faith and those who have sacrificed themselves because of the name of Jesus, that can understand what He did on the Cross better than most. Like Remembrance Day, Martyrdom and Persecution aren’t subjects we are comfortable talking about. They evoke a lot of emotion, and therefore some people prefer to avoid the subjects altogether. But it’s important, and I think today as we look at Remembrance Day, is the right day to talk about it.
The word Martyr itself comes from the Greek word MARTYS which means “witness”, as in a witness in a courtroom. It literally refers to those who were willing to give an official testimony before civil authorities. As Christians gave their lives for their faith, pointing to Jesus as the reason for their sacrifice, it came to be known as the term for those who were suffering in the name of Jesus,and finally settled to be the word people use to describe someone who is so committed to their faith, so willing to testify before anyone – even a persecutor – of their commitment to their beliefs,that that they are willing to die. The ultimate witness of truth.
But this isn’t just yesterday’s problem. Some people may think that Christian martyrdom and persecution ended hundreds of years ago, but it didn’t. It’s a present reality for many people today, and we’re hearing about it more and more in the news. The website Voice of the Martyrs, among others, is dedicated to telling those stories. This shouldn’t be a surprise though. Jesus promised that anyone who serves Him will risk persecution and martyrdom.
Jesus looked right at his followers and said in John 15:18-20, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”
And there is no point at which this will stop. It is a future reality as well. When the Apostle John was given the revelation of the future he saw this, “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.” (Rev 6:9-11)
It has happened, it is happening, it will continue to happen, and it’s going to get worse. Thank God that today, as we sit here in this room, we are not in a country like North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, or Iraq where Christians live in constant fear of losing their lives because of their faith. But it is coming and we should pray it doesn’t come soon.
A Special Place in the Kingdom
For those to whom it has come, let us remember this: Jesus loves and honours those who suffer and are martyred in His name. They aren’t suffering or killed because God loves them less or forgot them because they are cursed, or because they didn’t have enough faith. They did not suffer because of their sin –Jesus already paid for that. They were not abandoned by God because they had done something wrong. Their death was attended by God, and Jesus was next to them in every moment. Our identification with suffering as losing God’s blessing is a very Western, very wrong idea. The Bible says that Martyrs have a special place in His Kingdom.
I don’t want to get into a whole study of the end times right now, but listen to the special place Jesus affords martyrs during the end times. Revelation 20:4-5, “ThenI saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.”
These men and women are not forgotten in the eyes of God. They are not abandoned in their suffering. No, these martyrs have a special place beside Jesus in the kingdom and will be given things byGod that those who are not martyred will not have or experience.
A Realistic Picture of Christianity
When a soldier signs up to defend their country, whatever their motivations, the government is given the responsibility to train them for the job they will be asked to do. They need to teach the troops how to obey orders, improve their skills, fitness and strength, to learn how to care for and use their weapon. They must learn first aid so they can treat wounds, how to march so they can move as a unit, and study tactics so they can be prepared for battle.
It would be a disservice to the recruit if they weren’t given an accurate picture of life as a soldier. It would be foolish if boot-camp was an easy place to be, and if the officers lied about what life in the service was like.
When Jesus spoke about the Christian life, He didn’t paint a rosy picture for those who would believe in His name. In fact, the life he described for those who follow Him seems hard, unfair, and dangerous. In the same way, when Jesus was sending His disciples out to preach that The Messiah had come and the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand, He said,
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles…. [and a few verses later] Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:16-22)
Being a follower of Jesus requires the commitment of our entire being. Our lives, our choices, our hearts, our possessions, our plans, our marriages, our families, will be tested. Those who believe in Jesus must be ready to give everything to Him because it may be asked of them – knowing that Jesus has already given everything for us.
What Sustains a Persecuted Christian?
A lot of people practice their faith the same way they choose a car, a piece of art, a vacation, or food. They go by taste. “I like trucks better than cars, modern art better than classical, warm places over cold ones, black licorice over red.” If they like that part of the Bible or theology or Christian discipline, they keep it. If they don’t like it they throw it away. They see Christianity as a smorgasbord of options from which they get to pick and choose.
When talking about their faith they say things like “This is what I believe. It might not be true for you, but it’s true for me and that’s good enough. We all need to find what works for us, and create our own truths, our own version of God. Then we can be happy.”
God forbid you call yourself a Christians to make your family happy, or because it’s politically helpful, or culturally expected, or because you like the idea. That faith will not sustain you when persecution comes. The only way to stand up to persecution, to suffering, to the inconvenience that comes with being a Christian, is to believe with every fibre of your being that what Jesus says is true.
We are often amazed by those who are able to withstand persecution, even unto death, and wonder if we would be able to do the same. What gives them the strength to sustain their faith during those difficult times?
In a word, “Assurance”. Hebrews 11:1 says “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…”
God doesn’t allow us to pick and choose things about Him. We don’t have the right to decide our own morality, or what we think God is like. Our God is a revealed God. We may not like what He has revealed, but that doesn’t change who He is. We’re not talking aboutsubjective truths based on our preferences and tastes. We’re talking about objective truths. As surely as 1+1=2, as consistently as the force of gravity keeps us on the ground, and as absolutely sure we are of our very existence, so is the objective truth that God has revealed Himself and His will in a very singular way; through His Word, through the person and work of Jesus Christ. These are not truths to be chosen amongst, picked through for what we like and don’t like, but truths that are meant to be found, taught, discovered and believed.
Christians who suffer through persecution, or for that matter, Christians who suffer through anything in this life, learn that they don’t have the option of treating their faith in Jesus as a pie-in-the-sky, subjective truth which they can pick up or put down at their convenience. For those who suffer, their beliefs must have certainty. Suffering tests the quality of our faith. Their relationship with Jesus can’t be merely based on peer pressure, feelings, or fashion. If your faith is only as strong as your feelings, then you are in real trouble.
Your decision to be a Christian must be a very real one, because it affects every moment of your life, from when you get up in the morning to when you go to sleep at night. If God changed your heart, revealed His presence, sent His Son, made you His, and sealed you salvation by His Holy Spirit, then you must live that way. When you go through suffering or persecution you faith is no longer your opinion – it becomes either true or false, life or death – because you need to be absolutely certain you’ve put your faith in the right person.
In suffering we are sustained by what we “know”. When Job was going through is great suffering he said, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last, he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh, I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” (Job 19:25–27)
Nebuchadnezzar looked at Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and said to them, “…if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?”
And their response was, “Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Da 3:15–18)
How could they do that? Certainty.
The heroes of the faith in the scriptures and the Christian martyrs who have come since, were not certain in themselves. It wasn’t about their own strength, their own will, their own abilities. They were not strong in themselves. They did not build their lives on their own foundation. Their strength lay in the God they knew would deliver them.
When Paul was under arrest for preaching and teaching Jesus, he said 2 Timothy 1:12 that he wasn’t ashamed ofhis suffering, nor the Gospel, nor Jesus. He said, “I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.”
When a suffering Christian prays, they must know with certainty that God hears them and will answer. They don’t have time for spiritual games, they need Jesus to help them. 1 John 5:14-15 says, “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we knowthat he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.”
A believer in suffering must have certainty in the God who loves them and will deliver them, or they will fall apart and go all manner of other places for comfort. The question is whether or not they believe Jesus when He says in Matthew 6:31–34, “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. Butseek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
Or Romans 8:31-32, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”
I believe that with the same certainty with which I believe 1+1=2. We should not be afraid to talk about Christian martyrs or those facing suffering because they teach us about being committed to Jesus. They, in their lives and deaths, point us to Christ and give us a picture of what it means to be totally free from hypocrisy, to be absolutely certain of their faith. They didn’t say one thing and do another. They said it, lived it, and it cost them their lives.
Let me close with a few simple questions to consider:
First, do you ever take the time to read the stories of the Christian martyrs? Have you readFoxe’s book of Martyrs, Jesus Freaks, or any other book about someone who died for their faith? Or, maybe do you skip over the difficult parts of scripture that talk about suffering? Let me encourage you to read those books and verses. They are a powerful way to challenge yourself and grow in your faith.
Second, how certainis your faith today? Is it subjective like a favourite flavour, or is it anunshakable, objective truth? When persecution comes, do you have your rootsburied deep in the truths of God’s word and the Holy Spirit’s presence in yourlife? Or, when suffering comes, do you find yourself falling into doubts,fears, poor coping strategies, sinful habits, even avoiding God and otherChristians? Could that be because you aren’t doing those things, like prayer,study, meditation, and worship, that are necessary to grow your faith deeper?
Third, are you avoiding something difficult, that you know God wants you to do, but you don’t want to because it will be uncomfortable or inconvenient? Do you walk away from situations where you could glorify God, choosing to pretend you are not a Christian in that moment, because acting like a Christian will bring unwanted attention? Is it possible that God has been calling you to do something important – or stop doing something – but you know that obeying in that way will bring a time of hardship or suffering… so you choose not to obey? If so, you are missing a great blessing.
A 2nd-century Christian author named Tertullian said “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” which means that it is possible that your sacrifice, your blood, your pain, your loss, your obedience, will be the seeds by which many others will grow in faith and obedience to Jesus. I don’t want you to miss out on that kind of blessing because you fear man more than you fear God!
There are many places in the world that only know about Jesus because one brave Christian was willing to obey God and go preach and die for the gospel. I do not want to suffer, nor should any of us, but Romans 5:3-5 is the absolute truth and cannot be circumvented. Whatis the recipe for hope? “…we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” To believe that all suffering is evil is to deny what God can do with it. And to run from and try to avoid all forms of suffering is to avoid Jesus and thereby avoid building hope and faith – in yourself and others.
I’ve been doing something lately that I rarely do. I can’t actually remember when I’ve done this before. I’ve been reading books for myself. I know that sounds weird to say, but usually when I read, study, or watch something, it’s so that I can learn for the sake of my job. But lately, because of all the struggles I’ve been going through, my reading hasn’t been learning about other things, but about learning about myself. That’s lead me to a bunch of books, some given by my counsellor, others by my own research, that don’t just talk about a subject, but speak directly to me, and they have really been helping me to heal.
One of the books that I read was called “12 Faithful Men: Portraits of Courageous Endurance in Pastoral Ministry” and I absolutely ate it up. It was a series of 12 mini-biographies about a bunch of historical pastors who went through hard times and how they faced them.
I read about men like John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, who was arrested for preaching the gospel and spent almost thirteen years in prison. While he was in that prison cell he was not only writing one of the greatest books of all time, but also suffering incomprehensible spiritual attacks. He was deeply sad, angry, lonely, and afraid. But when he was told he could go free if he would stop preaching, he said, “If I were out of prison today, I would preach the gospel again tomorrow by the help of God.”
I read about Charles Simeon who, as a young man, was appointed to be pastor of a church that didn’t want him. The congregation responded by refusing to come and locking the doors of their pews so no one could sit down. Anyone who came had to sit in aisle seats that Simeon paid for himself. In response to his, the church wardens threw the seats out into the street and then stood outside heckling, threatening the people coming in. Then, when Simeon was leaving they threw rocks or eggs at him, or waited to beat him up. He stayed at that church for twelve years.
I read stories of pastors facing disappointment, heartache, racism, tragedy, depression, financial ruin, and political coercion – and when the question was inevitably asked, “How did they respond? How could they face all this and remain faithful? Why didn’t they quit?” the answer always came “They held onto the Word of God and Prayer.” And every book I’ve read so far has had that same resounding anthem.
The Perils of Youth
We’re going to take a little break from the Heidelberg this week, so please open up to Psalm 119:9–16 and let’s read it together:
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes! With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth. In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”
Psalm 119 is written as an acrostic love song to the Word of God, each section giving another reason why the Bible contains the very words of life and the neglect of it brings death. In this section, the concentration is on how a believer can live a holy life.
It begins with the question: “How can a young man keep his way pure?” The author has in mind to give wisdom to help people avoid the pitfalls and perils that come with youth, but I would argue that this section of the psalm isn’t merely for the young.
Consider what it’s like to be a young person, aged 15-25. What are the defining characteristics? There are good things and bad, right? Most youth are strong, virile, passionate, excitable, energetic, and want to try new things. Their bodies heal quickly from injury and are more flexible, growing stronger every day. They feel emotions with great intensity – when they are sad their world is destroyed, but when they are happy they are elated. When they find interest in something, it captivates their attention and they can spend hours and hours on it.
But there are also some bad things with youth, right? They are ignorant and are easily manipulated and fooled into believing lies. Their desire to try new things can lead them into dangerous, addictive, and destructive habits. Their youthful bodies make them think they are indestructible so they take greater risks, but their underdeveloped brain and lack of experience cause them to face unnecessary danger. Their passions, while a wonderful gift, can run wildly out of control, driving them to think and believe extreme things that simply aren’t true. “Everyone hates me! I’m the ugliest person ever! My parents are the worst people in the world!! Everyone is doing the same stupid, scary, dangerous thing – but I have to do it because acceptance from my peers is the only thing that matters, and I’ll literally die if I don’t get their approval!” (Not that they say it exactly like that…)
But, those thoughts aren’t only the purview of youth, are they? Be honest. Those of us who are older still struggle with those thoughts, don’t we? They may be more refined, with the sharp edges sanded off by the years, but they are the same thoughts.
We struggle with loneliness and acceptance. We want to live out our purpose and change the world, struggling to wonder if we are in the right job, the right marriage, the right city – and wondering if we should bug out and start over. We do stupid, selfish things with our money in an attempt to make ourselves feel better or to impress others. We experiment with ways to fix our feelings of guilt, shame, fear, anxiety just as much. Sure, we do it in more refined ways – with wine, medication, vacations, a false social media identity, bossing people around, quitting our jobs – but we also do it with food, pornography, and drugs. We get fooled by advertisers and become extreme in our devotion to things like sport teams, name brands, diets, and personal comfort or experiences. And each of those immature things corrupts our relationship with God and causes impurity to enter into our souls.
So, when we read, “How can a young man keep his way pure?”, let’s not assume that it’s not about us. Let’s restate it this way: “How can someone who struggles with immature thinking keep from corrupting their life?”
And the answer is: “By guarding it according to your word.” Conversely, how can a person make sure they corrupt their life? By neglecting, or forgetting, God’s word.
I wanted to take a quick break from the Heidelberg before I went on vacation because there has been a resounding theme to a lot of the conversations I’ve had with many of you, and that is the neglect of God’s Word and prayer. And I’m not talking about the normal, Christian humility where we all say, “Yeah, I could be praying more.”, but a true neglect of personal quiet times, reading God’s word and prayer.
My guess is that this is happening because of the many struggles that we are facing as a church. Over the past couple years the families in our church have been through physical and mental health issues, faced sickness and death, have struggled with hurting marriages, strained family relationships, and broken friendships. We’ve seen addiction issues, depression, and anxiety. We’ve seen financial problems and job loss. And of course, most of you know about the struggles we’re having as a church. My family has been going through a tough time, but the church as a whole is struggling too.
All of these struggles are a sort of crucible that we are going through together and as individuals. A crucible is a pot used by metal workers in order to melt their metal in a furnace. They are designed to withstand incredible heat when put into a fire so that the metal can get to the melting point. When the metals are melted in the crucible, a bunch of gunk and impurities separate from the metal and floats to the top (called dross), and it’s scraped off and discarded leaving the metal more pure. Leaving the dross in causes the metal to be weak.
How does God refine the impurities out of his people?
Proverbs 17:3 says, “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the LORD tests hearts.”
God purifies his people by giving them situations by which their faith and obedience and discipline and love are tested.
Isaiah 48:10–11 says, “Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.”
God sends affliction, or trials, or troubles to His people on purpose so that by them we can see our impurities, the dross that is gunking up and weakening our metal. So we can understand the ways that we are profaning the name of God and giving glory to or trusting other people and things than Jesus.
To Jeremiah, who lived around the time of the exile, when the whole nation had become hypocrites, God said that one of his mission was:
“I have made you a tester of metals among my people, that you may know and test their ways. They are all stubbornly rebellious, going about with slanders; they are bronze and iron; all of them act corruptly. The bellows blow fiercely; the lead is consumed by the fire; in vain the refining goes on, for the wicked are not removed. Rejected silver they are called, for the LORD has rejected them.” (Jeremiah 6:27–30)
God sent waves of affliction and trouble to them, gathering them in the crucible of Jerusalem, and placing them in the furnace of affliction, but they were like a bad alloy, or a metal that was entirely dross – just a bunch of bubbling junk. At no point did their trials cause them to repent, to relent from their sin, to turn back to God.
We here are going through trials in this church for a purpose. You are personally going through tough times, but they are not without cause – they are designed by God to show you something about yourself, something about God, something about your faith.
And for many people here, one of the things that has bubbled up as dross is a lack of commitment to taking time to read God’s Word and pray – which shows that we are going to other places for comfort and hope. The furnace continues, the heat of affliction grows hotter, and – I know because I’ve talked to many of your – you feel the conviction to repent, to turn to God, to read and study his word, and to pray, but you don’t. And that refusal has caused a lot of impurities to settle in your heart.
- Fears and doubts cloud your thinking.
- Lack of sleep, the need for more and more medications to stop your racing thoughts.
- Constant anxiety or depressive thoughts.
- Obsessing over work or lack of desire to do anything.
- Out of control anger and arguing more and more with the people you love.
- You don’t feel close to God, close to the church, close to your friends. You actually avoid Christian events, people and music.
- Your worship life is gone, and you feel spiritually dry.
- You drink more, eat more, sleep more, hide more, or get busier and busier to avoid thinking.
- Maybe you’ve even gotten to the place where you consider quitting your job, moving away, quitting the church, divorcing your spouse, or even committing suicide,
Why? Because the furnace has shown your dross, the impurities that are weakening your spirit, but you haven’t repented.
Road to Emmaus
Turn with me to Luke 24:13-35 (but keep your thumb in Psalm 119). This is the story of the two disciples who meet Jesus on the road to Emmaus. This story occurs after Jesus has been crucified and rose from the dead, even after Peter and John and Joanna and the Marys saw the empty tomb. And it begins:
“That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?’ And they stood still, looking sad.”
Pause there. Jesus interrupts their conversation and asks them what they are talking about – and they can’t even speak. They just stop, stand still, and look sad. Have you ever had that moment where you are doing kinda okay, and then someone asks you just the wrong question and you stop, get that catch in your throat, the sting in the eyes, and you just can’t talk? These men loved Jesus, and the subject makes them deeply sad. Keep reading:
“Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?’ And he said to them, ‘What things?’”
Ever had that experience where someone asks you how you’re doing and you just decide to tell them? “Fine, you really want to know?!” and you just verbal diarrhea everything that’s been going wrong?
“And they said to him, ‘Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.’”
Blaarghh… right? “Well, stranger, we’ve got a lot going on right now. We don’t know what happened, why it happened, and we have no idea where it’s leading. We thought God was doing one thing and then it turned out we were wrong. The plans that we thought were set, all the hopes we had, exploded in our faces. Then a bunch of things happened we didn’t expect and people started saying things we don’t really understand.” I’m sure we’ve all been there.
So, what does Jesus do? Look at verse 25:
“And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!’”
Let me translate that to modern speak: “You dummies, don’t you read the Bible?” Then Jesus says in verse 26:
“Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’”
“You know if you read your Bible more you wouldn’t have been so surprised by any of this. If you had been in the word, listening to Jesus, listening to God, then this would make a lot more sense to you. There is zero reason for you to be hopeless and sad right now.”
And how does Jesus follow that up? How does Jesus bring these sad men comfort? Look at verse 27,
“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”
He did a Bible study. Why? Because the answer to: Why did this happen? What was the purpose? What is Jesus doing? Is God still in control? Where is this all going? – is all answered in the Bible! The Bible and prayer are the means by which God communicates to His people. Jesus didn’t come up with a bunch of new theories and psychological mumbo-jumbo or memorized pat answers – He went to the source of truth: God’s Word, and explained it carefully, from beginning to end.
This is my point today: Many of you are starving your souls of the Word of God and that is why you feel such fear and sadness. You don’t have answers to what is going on, and don’t have wisdom to deal with it, because you aren’t turning to the source of wisdom. The Bible is how God speaks to His people – corporately and personally, in church and in your private times. You don’t need a pastor or priest or expert to read the scriptures to you and interpret what they say. If you are a Christian, then you have the Holy Spirit of God, the presence of Jesus Himself, with you if you ask Him to be there when you are reading.
You don’t need another book, a special formula, a prayer guide, or a podcast – as helpful as those things are. You need to find a quiet place, open your Bible, read it, meditate on it, pray about what you read, and ask God to help you apply it to your life.
Look back to Psalm 119: it says,
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.”
What keeps us from sin and helps us flee temptation? Memorizing scripture.
“Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes!”
“Statutes” means “prescriptions or “boundaries” or “limits”. How can you learn the boundaries that your life is meant to run in so you don’t smash into the wall? Ask God to teach you through His Word.
“With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth.”
The word “rules” there is the word for “judgements” or “the deciding of a case”. How can you understand the ways that God sees the world, how justice works in the world, how things can look out of control but are actually following God’s rules? Through the study and reading of the word of God.
Look at the next part:
“In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”
Look at the words “delight”, “meditate”, “fix my eyes”. The NIV translates that last sentence as, “I will not neglect your word.” (NIV)
How do you find joy in sadness, hope when afraid? How do you find reservoirs of love when you seem to be all tapped out? By finding your delight in the Word of God? How do you do that? By taking time to slow down… meditate… fix your eyes… mull over… chew on… reflect on… write about… think about… talk about… pray about… the Word of God.
“But I don’t have time!” we all cry! And I say this: You must make the time. This isn’t about learning a bit more about theology so you can answer some trivia questions – this is about the sustenance of your soul. This is as important as eating and breathing, and neglecting it is what is making you soul sick and too weak to deal with the crucible God has you in.
The only way to understand the refinement God is working in you, the only way to pass through the crucible, is to get rid of the dross, to become strengthened by praying and meditating on the Word of God often and for long periods of time. There is no substitute.
Turn back to Luke 24 and look at the effect that being with Jesus and studying His word had on those two men:
“So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?’ And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
First, it made them want more, so they begged Jesus to be with them.
Second, being with Jesus opened their eyes to the truth! If they would have let Him go down the road, and not begged for more time with him, they would have missed Him and still been in the dark.
Third, their hearts burned within them, meaning they were delighted, excited, impassioned, convicted, encouraged… all by the study of the word of God. That’s what private Bible reading and prayer can do. Being with Jesus makes our hearts burn within us.
And fourth, it caused their faith to grow so much that they leapt into action to spread the good news to others. They were headed from Jerusalem to Emmaus, but after talking to Jesus, “that same hour”, they ran back to Jerusalem so they could tell the other disciples what had happened.
And fifth, their story caused everyone’s faith to grow. The disciples told Simon’s story, the two men told their story, and everyone gave glory to God for the amazing things that they had experienced. From sadness and fear and confusion to joy, hope, and faith – all through the presence of Jesus and the study of His Word.
I encourage you to commit to changing your habits, cutting things out – be ruthless if you have to – and make time to be in prayer and in God’s Word. Take time to repent, to study, to pray, to seek God’s wisdom, to seek Him out about your crucible, to ask Him what dross He is getting rid of, to be thankful for His love, and to be unafraid to ask Him for what you need.
Have you ever seen the movie “Inception”? It’s about a group that invades other people’s dreams so they can plant ideas. It’s a cool movie. One of the cool parts is that they end up going deeper and deeper as they make the person fall asleep within their own dream so they can start a new dream within the dream – and then they do it again – a dream within a dream within a dream. It’s a cool concept.
I recognize that my sermon series has been a little like this lately. We’re at the tail end of a series on 1 Corinthians, which recently launched a mini-series on Stewardship, but now, we’re coming into the Easter Season and I need to pause the Stewardship series so we can prepare ourselves for Easter. In the movie going this deep into inception wasn’t a good idea and almost caused a bunch of people to die – so I’m really hoping that doesn’t happen.
Please open up to 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. But first, I want you to watch this:
Carman’s story is like many that are in the church today, not just youth, but a lot of people. Coasting along in the faith, serving here and there… as he said, “Christianity is just what we did.” That sort of faith, if you can call it that, doesn’t really hold up for very long and invariably leads to drifting from God and the church, what Christians have historically called “backsliding”.
But then something happens. In Carman’s case, his mom got sick. He was faced with the suffering, and eventual death of a loved one. At that moment, in the face of suffering and death, all the questions that he had been pushing aside came rushing at him, whether he wanted them to or not, and he was forced to evaluate where he was with God, ask himself who God is, and whether or not he was going to trust Him. I know some here have faced this moment of crisis too.
The reason for human suffering and what happens after we die has been a topic of debate since almost the beginning of time — and after thousands of years of discussion, we are obviously nowhere near a consensus. Religious leaders, theologians, philosophers, and scientists have all spent time, energy and much ink giving their opinions, but people are as divided as ever.
And, though I don’t want to assume where you’re at today, though I do know many of you, my guess is that even in this room there are a myriad of perspectives, and we know a lot of people that hold different beliefs. Some grew up with religious background that told them from an early age that there is some sort of force outside them that controls everything, will judge their actions, and send them somewhere after they die. Others have a view where suffering is all in the mind, there is no judgment on our deeds, and everyone gets their own perfect afterlife. Maybe you know someone who believes in reincarnation.
Or perhaps they are more like the renowned scientist, Stephen Hawking who died this week. He suffered from ALS for most of his life, was on the edge of death many times, and when he was asked about his beliefs about God he said,
“I believe the simplest explanation is there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realization; that there probably is no heaven and no afterlife either.”
In 2011, he said,
“There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers. That is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
It’s possible there are those here or among our friends that take this nihilistic view of the universe, believing that nothing happens and that everyone else is simply believing fairy tales because they don’t want to think about simply disappearing.
Some people love talking about these sorts of subjects and are open to new ideas, others are rock solid in what they believe and will never change – but more often, I find, people these days take a more agnostic view where they simply say they don’t know why bad things happen or what will happen after death and don’t think anyone ever will. Often, these sorts of people work pretty hard to distract themselves from having to ever think about suffering and death at all.
A lot of people are in that state – which we could simply call denial – but they can’t stay there. Death and suffering are all around us. We can’t actually escape them. I just conducted a funeral yesterday and it’s in moments like that, when we are faced with the suffering and death of someone that we knew, someone who was close to us, who had an impact on our lives, that we are forced to contemplate why they went through what they did and what happens next. Did their life matter? Did their suffering have a purpose? Is there a reward for the good they did and justice for the wrongdoer? Is there a place that is free from pain or do we simply disappear into the ether? It is in the moments where we are confronted with death that we are given the opportunity to wonder what happened and where they are now. To wonder about their condition. Which, in turn, forces us, if only for a fleeting moment, to wonder about our own condition, about how we will face suffering and what will happen to us when we die.
Many people aren’t comfortable with this subject, but it’s something that Christians talk about a lot – or at least they should. We’re coming up to the Easter Season which is all about moving from the dead of winter to the new life of spring, of fasting and prayer during lent to mourning the crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday, to the celebration of His resurrection on Easter Sunday. The stories of Jesus in scripture are stories of Him being surrounded by spiritual and human enemies, sickness, oppression, and death, and overcoming them all. And part of our mission in the world is to go out and minister to those who are weak, suffering and who have come face to face with death. Christians don’t run from these topics, we run towards them, just as Jesus did.
A Vacuum of Knowledge
Let’s read our passage today in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
This passage is a microcosm, a summary, of the Christian view of suffering and death. Many here are Christians. I am a Christian pastor. We are in a Christian church. And Christians have a very specific, very defined, view of suffering, death and the afterlife, something that we have been sharing and proclaiming and comforting ourselves with for literally millennia.
But this hasn’t always been the case. At the beginning of Christianity, as the Gospel of Jesus spread from Jerusalem to the Roman world and beyond, there was a lot of confusion. They, like us here today, had many, many views on why things happen the way they do and what happens after death. They had as many religions and philosophies as we do. And so, as the message of Christianity spread a lot of teaching and clarifying had to be done.
What we just read was a message sent from the Apostle Paul to a Christian church in the Greek city of Thessalonica. According to Acts 17, the Apostle Paul had been through their city, had told them the story of Jesus, about His life, teachings, death, burial, and resurrection, and had planted a church there in Jesus’ name. But he wasn’t able to stay long. Within a very short time, a group of Jews rose up that opposed Paul and his message. They spread lies about him, formed a mob, threatened violence, attacked the house they were staying at, shook them down for protection money, and then ran Paul and Silas out of town. Paul didn’t have time to teach the Thessalonians everything they needed to know, and that vacuum of knowledge left them in trouble.
They were like many people today. They had heard about the One, true God. They had learned that God has a standard for the world, a moral law written into His Word and into the consciences of men, and that we have all broken it. They had learned that every human being has sinned, that we all stand guilty, and that in our hearts we all know that we have done wrong — and that this God, the Creator of all things, will judge our deeds.
But they had also learned about Jesus. They had learned that, as the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16 says, that “God so loved the world that He sent His one and only Son, that whoever would believe in Him, wouldn’t perish, but would have everlasting life.” The Thessalonians, in Paul, had met a man who had seen and spoken to the risen, Lord Jesus, and he had invited them to look into the evidence themselves. They had learned that on the cross Jesus had taken the punishment for the sins of everyone who would turn to Him, that He literally traded Himself for them, took their punishment, wiped out their sins, and offered to them a new life with Him guided by the presence of the Holy Spirit of God. As a result of this message, they felt the conviction of their sins, asked forgiveness of God, and accepted Jesus as their Saviour and their God.
But then Paul left, abruptly. I would imagine that for a time it was all good. Everyone was excited about their new life, new faith, was celebrating and worshipping Jesus and sharing His love — but then someone in the church got sick. They were prayed over, they expected a miracle, but then, instead of seeing a miracle, that person kept suffering, got worse, and died. This put the believers into crisis — the same crisis that many people feel today.
They had been told that Jesus loves them, that God is all-powerful, that all good things come from Him, and that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life — but they just watched someone they care about get sick, suffer, pray for help, and then die. Maybe you’ve felt this way too, even asked the same questions. What happened? Was their faith not strong enough? Was the story of Jesus a lie? Where was God in all this? This was a crisis of faith. People started to turn away from God and the church and wrote to the Apostle Paul, begging him for an answer to what had happened. If God is so good, why do bad things happen? If God is powerful, then why didn’t He fix everything and stop our friend, our family member, from suffering and dying? If Jesus gives eternal life, why do believers die? What went wrong? Is it all just metaphors and stories? They were bewildered and they had lost hope.
Where Our Hope Lies
And so Paul writes to them these words. He says,
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”
He starts by saying, “we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep”. Their bewilderment and hopelessness, their confusion and panic, the loss of their faith had come because there was something they didn’t know. This is the danger of choosing not to think about it, being willfully ignorant, of not studying the word or believing lies. The vacuum of knowledge or false knowledge causes us to be confused, open to lies, and hopeless when we are faced with suffering and death. We become a target for our spiritual enemies, false teachers, and our own temptation to simply make things up – and there is no comfort in that.
But the Bible says that there is a truth, there is a sure hope, there is an answer to the deepest questions, “Why do people suffer and what happens after we die?”, and it’s an answer that needs to be shared by someone who already knows it. That’s why Christians share the gospel. We know something that others don’t. We know how God’s goodness, His power, and His plan, work in the face of human suffering and death. And it’s our job to share it.
The end of verse 13 says tells us why this knowledge is important: “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope”. There’s an important truth there: everyone grieves. Both Christians and non-Christians grieve. The natural, human response to suffering and death is grief. But there are two different kinds of grief. There is a grief with hope and grief without hope. Most of the world’s religions and philosophies give very little hope. They present a judgemental god who is eager to toss people into Hell who don’t follow his rules. They present a cruel or powerless god who has neither the authority nor the inclination to help anybody. They present a chaotic universe that has no order, no reason, no meaning. Or they simply present, utter, darkness – no hope. It is only the Christian message that presents hope in the face of suffering and death because it is the only one that presents the truth, rooted in the person of Jesus Christ.
Verse 14 says, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” In short, our Christian hope comes in the knowledge that God is good, God is loving, and God is in control. Christians know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that our birth, life, sufferings, and death are all known to a good God who loves us. But how do we know it’s true? How do we know He’s good? Because of the birth, life, sufferings, and death of Jesus. We find our hope in knowing that God deals with us as He dealt with Jesus.
God sent Jesus to be born to a certain family at a certain time. So were we. God allowed Jesus to see both good and bad in His life, to face joys and sufferings, friends and betrayal, purpose and grief. He does the same with us. God set the date and appointed the time of Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus sufferings and death were God’s idea, His plan to save us from the beginning of time. In the same way, the events of our lives, the sufferings we face, and the moment of our death are known to God.
But more than this, and in this lies our hope, God rose Jesus from the dead. God’s power brought Jesus from the grave, conquering death. He was seen by hundreds, maybe thousands of people. When Jesus died His disciples were completely distraught: hopeless, bewildered, listless, afraid. But seeing Jesus alive had such an effect on them that they dedicated their lives to sharing that message with as many people as they could — even at the cost of their own lives. They knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Jesus had died and is now alive – and they staked their lives and their eternities on it.
In the same way, Christians stake our lives, our hopes, and our eternities on Jesus. Just as His sufferings had a purpose and He rose from death, so do ours, and so will we. First our spirits to heaven, and then our bodies later. This is where we find hope.
As Romans 8 says,
“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?… For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
My hope for you today, and for the rest of this season, over the next few weeks, is that as you face suffering, grief, and death – as you are confronted once again with bad things that are happening to yourself and those you love, that you will open your hearts and minds to the Gospel, to the message of Jesus, to the comfort of knowing Him. That you will not grieve as those who have no hope but will be able to accept that Jesus knows what it’s like to walk in your shoes, has great compassion for you, and invites you to walk with Him. You don’t have to be perfect or cleaned up, or anything — His grace is available to you right now.
My hope is that you will come to trust more and more, even when the world gets dark, that in this place, at this moment, and no matter where you go from here, that Jesus has given a purpose to suffering, that He knows them all, that He has conquered death, and that you will know beyond the shadow of a doubt – and be able to share with others – that eternal life and perfect hope is available to all who would turn from their sin, ask His forgiveness, and trust in Him.
The tragedy at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, TX took everyone by surprise, causing grief, sadness and a lot of questions to flood our souls. But maybe the biggest question for Christians is: Where was God in Sutherland Springs?
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What is depression and how does it differ from sadness? How can sufferers, friends, and churches respond to those facing depression?