"Jesus changed the world by coming, but it wasn't through His miracles; He changed the world through His suffering." ~ Dr. Erwin Lutzer
Given the opportunity to choose, most living things will take the path of least resistance. Like water flowing downhill, most of us run from unnecessary work, inconvenience or pain. But before you become critical of “those kinds of people,” remember that while laziness isn’t a virtue, neither is suffering. In other words, it’s not something we should purposely go looking for. Yes, we’ve got to expect backlash for living according to the exclusive standards of Christ in an ‘ultra-tolerant world,’ but that awareness needs to be tempered by the knowledge that even Jesus didn’t want to suffer – "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Mt. 26:39) -- but when suffering came as a result of obedience, He entrusted Himself to His Father and “…for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).
What was that ‘joy set before him?’ It was first of all our salvation, which we’ve talked about already in these letters, but secondly it was His exaltation, which we’ll be discussing more during the Easter sermon. Jesus was able to endure the suffering of the cross for what God had in store for Him – “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11).
Where was the power in Christ’s suffering?
Jesus willingly suffered ‘for the joy set before him,’ but from the outside looking in, there didn’t seem to be any triumph in His pain, no victory in this death. When Jesus died, all of His closest friends were devastated. The Messiah was not supposed to die – He was supposed to conquer. He was supposed to rule. He was supposed to restore glory and honor to Israel, prestige and power – not shame! The Messiah was not supposed to die a criminal’s death… where was the glory, where was the honor, where was the power in that? Where was the power in Christ’s suffering? In case you’ve wondered the same thing, I’ve listed two answers, and they’re closely related:
1) The power of Christ’s suffering was the degree of LOVE it revealed.
There is a song by the Christian band Switchfoot with a line that says “the shadow proves the sunshine.” Have you ever noticed, when you’re walking outside on a cloudy day and the sun temporarily breaks through the clouds, how the shadows all get darker? The darker the shadow is, the brighter the sunshine must be. In a similar way, the dark degree of Christ’s suffering sacrifice proved the brightest degree of God’s love for you. God didn’t just allow His son to be bruised and beaten up for your sin. He allowed his son to be killed for it. The power of Christ’s suffering is in the great depths of love it reveals for humanity. The great depths of love it reveals for you.
2) The power of Christ’s suffering was the degree of SIN it paid for.
The kind of Messiah expected by many of the Jews at the time could never have made a dent in addressing either the depth of human need or the degree of human rebellion against God. Anything less than the Messiah’s death would have made light of the problem of sin and made a mockery of the Justice of God. Without the substitutionary death of a perfect human, any other earthly conquests carried out by the Messiah would have been shallow and temporary at best, ultimately having the power to change little but surface behaviors of people and institutions and certainly having no affect beyond the grave. The death of the Messiah unmasked the seriousness of humanity’s sin, and then paid for it.
But what about Paul?
‘Okay, but what about Paul?’ you may say – ‘we’re in the book of Philippians, not one of the gospels, and he wasn’t the Messiah, so what’s the point of his suffering for the sake of his faith? How does that help him or the cause of Christ? We acknowledge there is power in Christ’s suffering – but where is the purpose or power in Paul’s suffering?’
Here is Paul’s response;
12”I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.” (Phil. 1:12a)
Paul did not go looking for pain. What he did was boldly obey God in conscious awareness of the possible consequences. And when those consequences came (beatings, imprisonment and other forms of humiliation), he was able to see that rather than turning people away from God, his mistreatment “for Christ” (as opposed to punishment for committing some ‘normal’ crime) had the effect of arousing the kind of curiosity among pagans that made them naturally want to know what he believed, and word about him and his Christ spread. And among his “brothers,” among his fellow followers of Christ, instead of discouraging them his sufferings seemed instead to have “…stimulated them to begin to give a bolder testimony to the word of God” than before. “His confinement, so far from curtailing the ministry of the Word, has led to an extension of the gospel (69 Martin, Tyndale NT Commentary on Philippians)! There was power in Paul’s suffering!
What About Us?
When suffering comes to us, as we are assured it will for those who follow in the footsteps of Christ and our leaders, its power in our lives is its reflection of the work of Christ for the world. Our suffering “for the sake of the gospel” becomes a mirror and an ‘extension’ of Christ’s suffering for the sake of the world, so that when we suffer because of our faith, we are becoming identified with Christ as well as being identified with by Christ.
1) In suffering, we are identified with Christ! We are permitted (it is a privilege, a gift!) to become 21st century “echoes” of the life of Christ in our geographical locations and times, so that instead of only hearing the message of a self-sacrificing and suffering Savior, the world can see it duplicated and extended in our own lives. We are permitted to “…fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” (Col. 1:24) This has nothing to do with us somehow doing more than Jesus could have done for humanity – what it’s talking about are all the unique opportunities you and I will have to extend the ministry of Jesus in our time and in places where the Jesus of 2000+ years ago never had the chance to in his earthly lifetime.
2) In suffering, Christ identifies with us! We are permitted (it is a privilege, a gift!) to enjoy the presence and empathy of Jesus no matter what we go through. “To suffer in the behalf of Christ, which can mean the same as ‘for the faith of the gospel’, is actually a privilege given by God; and with the affliction of His followers Christ Himself is identified, as Paul would vividly recall from his Damascus road encounter. His former animosity was directed against the Jerusalem Christians, but Christ was sharing their suffering (Acts 9:4,5: ‘I am Jesus whom thou persecutest’” (89 Martin, Tyndale NT Commentary on Philippians).
Do not look lightly on the hardships that have come to you because you love Jesus. They are privileges filled with the power to advance the gospel of Christ!
In my last post I fleshed out the ‘implications’ of 1) God partnering with us and then 2) us partnering with our leaders to fulfill the will of God. What I did was highlight the “evidences” of this partnership (indicators that you’re actively participating ‘in it’) rather than the “essence” of the partnership (the nature of it, what it’s made of). I showed the footprints in the sand left by a “partner in the gospel,” but what I didn’t mention was why there was only one set of footprints at times and why those footprints never stepped off a cliff. What I didn’t highlight were the ingredients that make-up this partnership: the strength of grace and the discernment of maturing love. What I told you about the evidences of partnership last time was true. But what I gave you was a car with no gas in the tank and no steering wheel. Let’s go ahead today and make this partnership ‘road-worthy!’
7”It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.” (Phil. 1:7)
I hinted at the critical importance of the grace-ingredient in this partnership near the end of the last letter, but never spelled it out. “After all,” I noted, “it's ultimately always His partnering with you that really matters.” Yes, completely true, but let’s explore that more – what is the role of grace in this Partnership?
The Role of Grace
The grace-ingredient does this:
“And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9, NKJV)
The grace of God is what fortifies you and upholds you as you walk in partnership through every kind of suffering and in every instance where you must live out, defend or simply verbalize the gospel message. That, for the space we have here, is a summary of the “role” of the grace-ingredient in the make-up of this supernatural ‘partnership in the gospel.’ Grace is the ‘fuel’ of partnership. So what is the steering wheel?
In verse 8 of Philippians chapter 1, the apostle Paul admits once again to a special affection for these Philippian believers, but goes so far as to describe it as “the affection of Christ,” as if, says Ralph Martin, “Christ were expressing His love through the personality of His servant [Paul]” (64 Tyndale NT Commentaries, Philippians). Then in the very next verse Paul prays an incredible prayer for the development and growth of their love:
9”And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” (Phil. 1:8-11)
What is the ‘steering wheel’ of Partnership? Love is the steering wheel!
The Role of Love
The love-ingredient does this:
“…abound[s] more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ…”
Paul prays that the shared ingredient of love would develop in the qualities of knowledge and discernment. How does this happen and what does it mean? ‘That their love would abound increasingly in knowledge’ refers to a deepening relationship with God through an increasing understanding of God -- through His self-disclosure via Scripture. A friend of mine who was recently teaching a class on Bible Study methods was asked by one of his students, "If the bible is God's love-letter to us, then why do we need to learn all of these 'rules' and 'principles' of interpretation? Doesn't this just make bible study an academic exercise, and not the relational thing that it should be?"
Listen to his great response: “That is an excellent question. But I think it starts off with some 'mythical' assumptions. It assumes a kind of competition between the 'mind' and the 'heart'; the former correlating to the 'academic' (intellectual) side of things, and the latter with the 'heart-felt' (spiritual) side of things. This though is to create a 'false-competition', I think. What if the Holy Spirit provided us with these 'principles' of interpretation in order to better love and understand Him and His values? What if learning 'academic things' is just as much a part of "relating to God" as is engaging God 'spiritually' (whatever that might entail)?” The love-ingredient of partnership is essential for leading us into an ever-maturing relationship with God. But that’s not the end of Paul’s prayer…
The second quality Paul prays for their love to abound in is the quality of judgment, also translated ‘perception.’ This is the same word used by the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) to translate the Hebrew word for ‘wisdom,’ and can be understood as the application of knowledge, the “employment of the faculty which makes a person able to make a moral decision” (65 Tyndale NT Commentaries, Philippians). Mature discernment in making moral decisions grows out of a maturing relationship with the God of morality, so that there emerges a sequence of events associated with the love ingredient in Partnership:
1) An ever-deepening understanding of who God is…
2) An ever-increasing capacity to make morally wise decisions…
3) An increasingly consistent track-record of recognizing and choosing the ‘best’ things, “what is excellent.”
If the grace of God is what fortifies you and upholds you as you walk in partnership through every kind of suffering and in every instance where you must live out, defend or simply verbalize the gospel message, the maturing-towards-completion love of God in you is what informs the actual placing of your steps in the midst of both. Love is the ‘steering wheel’ of partnership!
Are you still with me? Next time we’ll tackle my last post, “The Power of Suffering,” before my Easter sermon on April 12th. Stay tuned!