Saturday, November 23, 2019


What is the Purpose of Suffering in the Life of a Christian?

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial that has come upon you for your testing, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ, you may also be overjoyed at the revelation of His glory.
(1 Peter 4:12-13) 
In the first verse of the third chapter of Ephesians, Paul called himself “A prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles.”

Then, in verse thirteen, he encouraged the Ephesians “not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory.”

When we look at the words that Paul uses and which were meant to be an encouragement, it may seem a very odd encouragement indeed. It could be taken that Paul tells the people that he is suffering for their sake, and that they could be happy about this fact!

What did he mean by this? Was this just another way of Paul telling the people that, even though he was in prison because of them, the people could be glad that it was Paul that was imprisoned instead of themselves? Should the attitude of the Ephesians be, “Better you and not me!”
Is this how Paul meant that the Ephesians should take it? 

For Your Glory
We know that this is not what Paul must have meant, but if not this, then what?

Of course, we first have to look at what Paul may have meant by the phrase, “your glory.” In our normal usage of the word glory, we see it referring to something of great honor, or as deserving of adoration. If we apply this meaning to what Paul told the Ephesians, it would be taken to mean that the suffering of Paul brought honor to the Ephesians. His imprisonment would cause them to receive adoration.

This is not how Paul meant it, of course, but in what sense did he use the word glory? As we have done before with other words that are used in ways that we do not normally use them today in our own circumstances, we again look at how this same word was used in other passages in the context of the New Testament. 

Glory as in Describing a Sense of Brilliance
In many places in the New Testament where the word glory is used, it is meant to convey a sense of splendor or brilliance. For instance, at the birth of Jesus Christ we read that as the shepherds around Bethlehem were tending their sheep, “An angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened” (Luke 2:9 NAS).

Some years later, during the ministry of Jesus when he appeared in glory to three of his disciples on what is called “the mount of transfiguration,” the disciple Matthew described the face of Jesus as shining “like the sun,” and his clothes becoming “as white as the light” (Matthew 17:2).

The Apostle John says of that experience on the mountain, “We beheld his glory” (John 1:14).

Peter, likewise a disciple and apostle, and also present to witness this transfiguration of Jesus, says of this experience, “We were eyewitnesses of his majesty, for he received honor and glory from God the Father” (2 Peter 1:16-17).

As in the first advent of Jesus to earth, his second coming is also described as an event that will be accompanied by glory. Jesus, in talking about his second coming, describes it like this: “The Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels” (Matthew 16:27 NAS).

The glory that Jesus speaks about here may be taken as his coming with the full honor of his Father, and also associated with a sense of brilliance and splendor. 

Glory as in the Giving Honor or Ascribing Majesty to Someone
The notion of bestowing honor upon someone is also inferred in the use of the word glory. We have already noted that when the angels appeared to the shepherds telling them of the birth of the infant Jesus, they appeared accompanied by a sense of brilliance and splendor. The angels also spoke of glory in the sense of expressing reverence and honor to the events happening on that night.

Their words to the shepherds were ones of praise when they said, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (Luke 2:14 NAS).

Another example of using the word glory in this sense is in the opening of the book of Revelation, when John is about to address the seven churches of Asia. Giving praise to Jesus, John writes, “To Him who loves us and has released us from our sins by His blood, who has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father—to Him be the glory and power forever and ever! Amen” (Revelation 1:5-6 BSB) 

Glory as in Describing Fullness of Maturity of Higher Rank
This same word glory is also used to describe other things, even those in our daily experience. Speaking about the lilies of the field, Jesus said that, “Even Solomon in all his glory did not clothe himself like one of these” (Matthew 6:29 NAS). When mature and in full bloom, the flowers of the field could be said to be “glorious.”

Also, Jesus once advised some guests at a dinner party, telling them “When you are invited [to a feast], go and recline at the last place, so that when the one who has invited you comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will have honor in the sight of all who are at the table with you” (Luke 14:10 NAS). The word that is translated as honor here is the same Greek word (doxa) that in the other verses that we mentioned that was translated as glory. 

Glory as in Describing Fulfillment
An interesting statement was made by old Simeon in the temple when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to be presented there to the Lord soon after his birth. The Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would not die until he saw the Messiah. When the old man saw the infant Jesus, he took the baby in his arms and said “My eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples; A light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel” (Luke 2:30-32 NAS).

Here, Simeon means to use the word light in much the same way that he uses the word glory. These words are used to describe the manifestation and ministry of Jesus to these two groups of people.

Jesus also uses several nuances of the word glory shortly before the time when he was to be crucified. In his prayer to the Father in heaven, notice how many times and in what manner he uses some form of the word glory: 

Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son may glorify You. For You granted Him authority over all humanity, so that He may give eternal life to all those You have given Him.
Now this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent. I have glorified You on earth by accomplishing the work You gave Me to do. And now, Father, glorify Me in Your presence with the glory I had with You before the world existed.  (John 1:2-5 BSB) 

How to Obtain the Hope of Glory
When we group together all of these meanings, we see that the word that we translate into glory is used in the New Testament to not only mean a brightness or brilliance, but of something finely attired and brought to maturity and fulfillment. The word is used to refer to something or someone who is honored and perfected.

I am sure that will get no argument when I say that we are not yet at the point where we are living in glory, fully honored and perfected. Indeed, it is as Paul wrote to the Roman church: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 BSB emphasis added).

But Paul’s primary teaching on obtaining the glory of God is not that we are to suffer in order to gain it. Rather, glory is given to us as a gift of God by an act of grace.

After stating that we fall short of the glory of God, in the very next sentence Paul writes that we are “justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

He later continues in the letter: 

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. (Romans 5:1-2 BSB) 

Paul told the Colossians that it is because we have Christ in us that we have the hope of glory.

Paul also wrote to them, “We proclaim Jesus, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ” (Colossians 1:27-28). 

The Place of Suffering in Obtaining the Glory of God
How then was it that Paul saw his own suffering as contributing to obtaining glory? He also said of the ministry that he and his friends brought to the Corinthians, “So death works in us, but life in you” (2 Corinthians 4:12).

Interestingly, Jesus also saw his own suffering as in some way pertaining to glory. After his resurrection, when he was speaking with two men on the road to Emmaus concerning his own crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus said, “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” (Luke 24:26 NAS).

We might wonder why this was so, since even at the birth of Jesus Christ, the heavenly host proclaimed that he had already come with great glory. Also, throughout the entire ministry of Jesus we see his glory. As the Apostle John said of Christ, speaking of his miracle of turning water to wine, “Jesus performed this, the first of His signs, at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed His glory, and His disciples believed in Him” (John 2:11 BSB).

Also, we might wonder about the place of suffering in our lives when Paul speaks of his own suffering as having a part of bringing the church of Jesus Christ to glory. Our position of glory does not come from what we do or what anyone else does, but as we have just read in the words that Paul had written to the Romans, our position in glory comes only through Christ.

The notion of our own suffering at first seems to go contrary to what Paul wrote about the grace of God. In the first reading of the words below, Paul seems to be saying that it is only what Christ suffered as our substitute that can secure our resurrection into glory—not our own sufferings. Jesus has suffered the consequences of our sins on our behalf. 

Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection. (Romans 6:3-5 NAS) 

All of this must mean that every person who has been redeemed by the blood of Jesus is destined for glory—regardless of what suffering they may or may not endure in this life.

Nevertheless, there is an identity in Christ that Paul seems to think still also involves suffering, as we can see when he told the Ephesians that the suffering that he was enduring was for their glory. 

Suffering on Behalf of Others
This point only adds to our difficulty in understanding the place of suffering in our lives. Paul considered his own suffering not to be specifically for his own growth and benefit, but largely for the benefit of others. He writes further on this to another church. This one to the Colossians: 

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body (which is the church) in filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit. (Colossians 1:24-25a NAS) 

The first thing that we should notice in this statement of Paul’s is that when he considered his suffering on behalf of someone else, there is not really a direct correlation between his suffering and any one church or individual in particular, but only that it is on behalf of the church as a whole. Paul says that he shares it “on behalf of His [Christ’s] body, which is the church.”

The call to suffer on behalf of others is not limited to Paul alone. We see that this is a ministry that is to be common in the church. In one of his teachings of the church as Christ’s body, Paul says, “There should be no division in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.   Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:25-27 NAS). 

The Purpose of Suffering
But why are we called to suffer at all? You may have noticed in reading one of Paul’s statement, he simply says that he saw his suffering as “filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.”

We rightly ask how it is possible that Paul saw the afflictions of Christ as lacking in anything. Indeed, from studying the verses that we earlier quoted, when it comes for any further sacrifice that is needed for our glory; we see that there is none. When Jesus died on the cross, He called out, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). There was nothing more to be done.

Nevertheless, Paul saw his call to suffer on behalf of the church as at least part of what it meant to be made a minister according to the stewardship that God bestowed on him for the benefit of the church. In the same way that it is unknown to us why we must be called to suffer (and some more than others); it is even a greater mystery to know how our suffering might be for the benefit of others.

Perhaps the best that we can say about suffering on behalf of others is to bring up again the same truth that Paul mentions when he speaks of the church as the body of Christ. Speaking further of the body of Christ, to the Philippians Paul wrote, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have” (Philippians 1:29-30 ESV).

There must be a sense that, as the body of Christ, we are linked together to a greater degree than we realize. If we think of it somewhat in terms of our own physical bodies (as Paul did in the passage we quoted from 1 Corinthians 12), we will see what Paul also means when he says, “We proclaim Him (Christ), admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ.” (Colossians 1:28 NAS).

Whatever else may be involved is suffering for the church, the purpose of it is clear: To present every person complete in Christ.

In considering these things, I would like to suggest that when Paul said that he was suffering for the believers of Ephesians and that it was for their glory, the apostle meant that he saw his suffering as being part of what would help to bring the church to perfection and completeness.  Paul is writing this specifically to the church at Ephesus, but he writes in this similar manner also to other churches. The apostle saw his suffering as something that brought glory to the entire church of Jesus Christ. 

How Our Position is Different than Our Present Reality
Seeing the state of the world and what is happening even in our own lives, it is not difficult to see that although we may be in a position of glory, we have yet to see the full realization of it.

But what is the relationship between present suffering and future glory? If we are positionally ready for glory, what good does suffering do to help us achieve that glory? In other words, why is it that suffering should be a part of achieving glory, since the two seem to be in contrast to one another? Paul did not deny that there would be suffering in the church. He also wrote to the Romans:  

The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him. (Romans 8:16-17 NAS)

Sources of Sufferings
When we read of the sufferings of Christians in the Bible, we usually read it understanding that Paul and the other writers are speaking of facing some sort of persecution for the sake of Christ.

Although this is a fair reading of the Scriptures, it is also true that sufferings come in many forms. Actually, the very fact that we, who have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus and are destined for glory, but who nevertheless are still called to remain in this world with all its troubles, is in and of itself a form of suffering.

We experience the sufferings of this life come in many different manners. It is not only belittlement and persecution because we are Christians, but the sufferings that we are called to endure come wearing many faces that are not specifically targeted to Christians. These are the sufferings that we hold in common with any and all who live on the earth. Our common sufferings come in the form of famine, poverty, warfare. They come bearing the titles of cancer, malaria, coronary disease, Alzheimer’s disease.

What follower of Christ would not want to be removed from the sufferings of this life and enter into glory?

But it is not yet. God has not yet called any reader of these words to enter into glory at this time. For reasons that only He knows, for the time that we have here on earth in this present existence, God has called us to remain—sufferings and all. 
Our Focus in Life
Paul’s view on sufferings is that these difficulties and tribulations should not be the focus of our priorities at all. To do so is the natural state of the people of the world, who must look to find fulfillment in this present life only. They see no purpose at all in suffering. These who set their minds exclusively on earthly things and who believe they are to find fulfillment in this lifetime are those who Paul says “whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame" (Philippians 3:19 NAS).

As believers, we have a different perspective. Paul continues: “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory” (Philippians 3:20-21 NAS).

Those of us who are believers realize and understand that true and lasting fulfillment will never come in this present life. In this life, we are merely pilgrims traveling through on our way to our true destiny. As pilgrims, we suffer the hardships and consequences of passing through this land.

But if not, if we are not to fix our eyes on the realities that come knocking on our doors every day and which surround us and sometimes tend to smother us, where then are we to look? The sufferings of this life can be overwhelming and they can demand our full attention. 

The View from the Mountain
Perhaps the first step in the reassigning of our vision and our priorities is again to look at our entire existence from a lofty perspective. This, after all, is what Paul is trying to show us in this entire letter.

We must realize that life viewed only from ground level can never give us a realistic perspective of the truth. We must learn to see our lives as God sees them.

In doing this, Paul likens our present state as if we were unadorned household vessels that seem common in every way—exactly like everyone else on earth. We are the same except for one specific but fundamental difference. This is the fact that, although we may appear to be the same as everyone else on earth, if we have accepted the grace of God within our lives, the vessels of our bodies have hidden within us the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God.”

Paul writes: 

We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this surpassingly great power is from God and not from us. We are pressed on all sides, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body…

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, yet our inner self is being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary affliction is producing for us an eternal glory that is far beyond comparison.

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:7-10; 16-18 BSB).  

Glory is the Goal
If we were to view our sufferings and the sufferings of others from our lofty position, what should we expect to see? When this happens, we begin to view our lives by not looking only at our vessels of clay, but rather by seeing the treasures within. Our eyesight is transformed. We will begin to see, as Paul earlier wrote to the Ephesians, “With the eyes of our heart.”

First of all, we will begin to see that, despite how things may appear at ground level and in our present circumstance, God has only his best intentions for us. If we suffer, we do so in common even with Jesus.

The Apostle Peter writes, “Therefore, since Christ suffered in His body, arm yourselves with the same resolve, because anyone who has suffered in his body is done with sin. Consequently, he does not live out his remaining time on earth for human passions, but for the will of God” (1 Peter 4:1-2 BSB).

Despite present sufferings, Paul writes that we can know that “God works all things together for the good of those who love him and who are called according to his purpose.”

God’s purpose for us is that, after all the afflictions of this life, we in the end will be “conformed to the image of his Son…and those whom God predestined, those he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified” (Romans 8:28-30).
Glory for us is the goal. 

On the Road to Glory
If we learn to do this, if we learn to look at life from a lofty perspective, our vision of seeing only sufferings will be transformed. We will then see an entirely new thing. We will see that suffering is not in contrast with the grace of God and with glory at all, but actually is something that we merely encounter on the road to glory. It is even something that will help us to realize the full glory of God.

Again, the words of Paul: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God (Romans 5:1-2 BSB).

But Paul’s line of reasoning does not end there. He next brings in the bumps and potholes in the road to glory—the sufferings.

“Not only that, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us” (Romans 5:3-5 BSB). 

The Love of God
You will notice that this road to glory leads us inevitably to God’s love. It is here where the road is completed. God’s love is the fulfillment and realization of life itself. The love of God is more than mere sentimentality. It is the most powerful force in the universe. 

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?...No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39 BSB). 

When we begin to see with the eyes of our heart, we will begin to understand that sufferings happen in our lives not because God does not love us. On the contrary, to understand the place of sufferings is to realize that these struggles will eventually lead us to comprehend also His love.

Lastly, as we began this chapter with a statement by the Apostle Peter on suffering, and so we will close with another:

After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore you, secure you, strengthen you, and establish you. To Him be the power forever and ever.  Amen  (1 Peter  5:10-11)

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