HOW CAN A GOOD GOD ALLOW SUFFERING?

suffering - mother and baby

When we reject the God of the Bible because of suffering, what we are really saying is that we will not accept a God who is greater than our own minds. We are saying that if we cannot work out a purpose or good outcome for suffering, then no such good outcome is possible.

And it is only in Christianity that suffering is redeemed by a God who has suffered himself, and who promises to impart meaning, significance and a good outcome from our own trials.

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Download Suffering Part 2

Suffering #2. WHY DOES GOD ALLOW SUFFERING?

 Last time, we considered the fact that New Testament clearly teaches that suffering is a normal part of being  a follower of Jesus. I want to unpack that more, later in this series. I believe that trust in Jesus gives us tremendous hope and grace when we experience suffering. But many people have trouble seeing it that way. One of the most common questions that both Christians and non-Christians have about suffering is this: How can a God who is good, loving, and all-powerful allow some of the terrible suffering that we see in the world?

This isn’t just a theoretical question. Many people turn away from the Christian faith because they feel that God has abandoned them in their suffering. Many others use some version of this question to keep God at a distance, and claim it as a reason they could never become Jesus-followers.

This issue of God’s role in human suffering is very deep, and dozens (if not hundreds) of books have been written on the subject, most by people who are much smarter than I am. I don’t want to pretend to have all the answers, because I don’t. But sometimes, I think we make this more complicated than it has to be.

One thing I find interesting is that usually, the people who turn away from Christianity because of suffering have not really considered what they are turning toward. In other words, what are the alternatives to the Christian view of suffering? Just so that we are thorough, I want us to briefly think about how other world-views and religions approach suffering. Obviously, this is all vastly simplified, but I think we can get to the basic idea of each. See if these other approaches can really bring you any better satisfaction than the Christian view.

Buddhism, and many similar religions, take the approach that the physical world is meaningless. The way to deal with suffering is to learn to not let it bother you. So when a five year old boy is repeatedly abused by his step-father, it isn’t a tragedy – it is meaningless. Don’t allow it to affect you. If you let such things bother you, you will never find ultimate peace. In addition, Buddhists generally subscribe to the idea of karma. From the website Buddhanet.net:

Karma is the law that every cause has an effect, i.e., our actions have results. This simple law explains a number of things: inequality in the world, why some are born handicapped and some gifted, why some live only a short life.

In other words, people suffer because they deserve to suffer (possibly because of actions in previous lives).

Hinduism, and many philosophies like it, also view suffering around the idea of karma. So, in both Hinduism and Buddhism, the little boy who is abused by his step-father deserves it. Eventually, (in Hinduism) after about  8.4 million lifetimes of suffering, you’ll finally be free. But in the meantime, you should accept it in your own life, and in that of others, as justly deserved. Is this more satisfying to you than the Christian God, who offers us His presence in the middle of suffering, and even suffers on our behalf?

Secularism (which is more or less based upon atheism) sees suffering as a senseless tragedy. Secularists are motivated to try and minimize future suffering, for the good of the human race. So secularists respond to child-abuse by making laws against such things. They want to build a society of laws and technology to benefit all humanity. But secularists don’t have any compelling reason for why we should care about the human race in the first place, or build that better society. Most would object to that statement, but if we are just the product of a random series of events, there is no meaning to life, nor any value to it.

Secularists may want to make the world a better place, but they don’t have much in the way of comfort for someone who suffers anyway. So, the little boy who is abused is suffering from senseless tragedy. There really isn’t anything to make it OK. And yet, on the other hand, there is no compelling moral logic telling us to care about him in the first place. Is senseless suffering more comforting to you than a God who can impart meaning and significance to pain?

Some religions, like Islam, are more or less fatalistic. Suffering just is what it is, and all we can do is get through it as best we can. God has his reasons, which we won’t understand. So the little boy must simply endure it well. There is no sense that God shares our pain, or participates in suffering on our behalf. While it is noble to suffer well, there is no real assurance that it means anything, or accomplishes anything.

Only in Christianity is suffering redeemed by a God who has suffered himself, and who promises to impart meaning, significance and a good outcome from our own trials.

Now, I know that this is still hard to swallow. What good outcome could possibly justify the repeated abuse of a little child?

The answer is quite simple: I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows.

But the God of the Bible is not only revealed as good, he is also revealed as infinite

For everything was created by Him in heaven and on earth, the visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things have been created through Him and for him. He is before all things, and by Him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:16-17)

15God will bring this about in His own time. He is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings, and the Lord of lords, 16the only One who has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light; no one has seen or can see Him, to Him be honor and eternal might. Amen. (1Tim 6:15-16, HCSB)

3He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. 4He counts the number of the stars; He gives names to all of them. 5Our Lord is great, vast in power; His understanding is infinite. (Ps 147:3-5, HCSB)

3Do not boast so proudly, or let arrogant words come out of your mouth, for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and actions are weighed by Him. (1Sam 2:3, HCSB)

8“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways.” This is the LORD’s declaration. 9“For as heaven is higher than earth, so My ways are higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa 55:8-9, HCSB)

We human beings are not infinite – there are definite limits to our physical bodies, to our brains, even to our souls. This means that we can only ever grasp a very, very, tiny piece of God. When we reject the God of the Bible because of suffering, what we are really saying is that we will not accept a God who is greater than our own minds. We are saying that if we cannot work out a purpose or good outcome for suffering, then no such good outcome is possible. We are demanding that an infinite God must act in such a way we tiny, finite creatures can understand with our tiny little minds. That is not the God described by the Bible.

All of this is addressed in one of the oldest books of the Bible: Job. Job is good man, with a good life, when God deliberately allows him to suffer terrible tragedies, one after the other. Four friends come to be with Job in his suffering. Job speaks out about his anguish, and he demands an explanation from God. Job’s friends rebuke him, arguing that Job is suffering (basically) as the result of his own karma – in other words, he deserves it. Job disagrees, and maintains that God must explain Himself, and show him the reasons for his suffering. They argue back and forth about this for most of the book. Finally, in chapter 38 of the book, God breaks His silence.

Who are you to question my wisdom with your ignorant empty words? Now stand up straight, and answer the questions I ask you.

Were you there when I made the world? If you know so much, tell me about it. Who decided how large it would be? Who stretched the measuring line over it? Do you know all the answers? What holds up the pillars that support the earth? Who laid the cornerstone of the world?

In the dawn of that day the stars sang together, and the heavenly beings shouted for joy. (Job 38:1-7, Today’s English Version)

I can just hear someone saying, “Ha! We do know better than God: we know the earth isn’t supported by pillars!” That sort of response is a bit silly. This is clearly poetic language, expressing the main idea that next to God we know nothing.

After going on for four chapters reminding Job of all that he doesn’t know, God stops a moment. Job repents. Next God rebukes Job’s friends, who had insisted that Job’s suffering was essentially the result of karma. He spoke to the friend named Eliphaz:

“I am angry with you and your two friends, for you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.” (Job 42:7, HCSB)

He tells them to offer sacrifices, and to beg Job to pray for them:

“Then my servant Job will pray for you. I will surely accept his prayer, and not deal with you as your folly deserves, for you  have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.” (42:8, HCSB).

Job did not have the right to an explanation, but in all his demands, he did not say anything untruthful about God. But God says that Job’s three friends – who said many things that some modern Christians often say – were wrong in what they said about God. Note the final twist of the knife against the idea of karma – God says he will not punish Job’s friends, even though they deserve it. The message is clear:

  1. We will not always have an explanation for suffering. We cannot begin to understand God’s perspective, and we are simply not smart enough to comprehend God’s reasons for allowing suffering.
  2. The idea that suffering is always the result of what we do, or don’t do (in this life, or in past ones) is simply wrong. We often have no control whatsoever over our own suffering.

This is the starting point for a Christian view of suffering: God is bigger than we are. He is infinite, we are not, and so we cannot possibly understand the reasons for everything he does, or does not, do. The rest of the Bible, however, calls us to trust this God that we cannot understand. He is willing to suffer Himself, on our behalf. He promises to redeem and make good come from all of our suffering, if we trust Him. Trusting God when we don’t understand may be difficult, but it is not complicated. You don’t have to be a genius to deal with the questions of suffering – you simply need to trust – something any child knows how to do.

I do know – from personal experience – that sometimes trust is a tall order. I haven’t always been able to trust God in the midst of suffering. But when I can, it changes everything. It helps tremendously to remember that Himself has suffered.

18For since He Himself was tested and has suffered, He is able to help those who are tested. (Heb 2:18, HCSB)

God, and His actions are beyond our understanding. But He isn’t just some distant puppet-master. He himself entered into our suffering, and suffered on our behalf. He has helped many millions of people in the midst of their suffering. I know he can help us, also. I know He is trustworthy to do so. Won’t you trust Him yourself?

SUFFERING IS A NORMAL PART OF THE CHRISTIAN LIFE

suffering-crying

Suffering cannot derail God’s plan for your life. It can be very, very difficult, but it does not have to be evil. In fact, the best thing that ever happened for humankind came about through suffering. It came not in spite of Jesus’ suffering, but because of it. Ultimate suffering was the means of bringing about ultimate good. If this tremendous good (our salvation) came through suffering, is it possible that our own suffering might bring also bring about some good?

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Download Suffering Part 1

Suffering #1.

I’m not quite ready to launch into another long book-of-the-Bible-series. Instead, I’d like to do something that I don’t do very often – preach on a topic, with various scripture passages as support for the topic. In general, this is not the best way to learn the Bible, but at times, it can be an appropriate way to teach about some part of the Christian faith. I want to spend a few weeks talking about the topic of suffering.

As I write this, I am battling a chronic pain condition that often severely affects me, and limits what I can do. I may not be able to finish one sermon each week. I do appreciate your patience with me as we go through this. If you check for a sermon and don’t find one, maybe you could use that as a reminder to pray for me.

You may think it ironic (depending on how you use that word) that I want to speak about suffering while I am suffering from chronic pain. I’m not so sure. I think the fact that my life is not all rosy right now might be a good place from which to consider the issue.

Before I go any farther, however, let me say this. I do think I’ve suffered a little bit. I haven’t known an entire day without pain for more than two years. A significant amount of my time and energy goes into managing my pain every day. I’ve suffered enough to learn some practical things about the topic. But I don’t think I’ve suffered more than anyone else. I know many, many people who have undergone suffering that, from my perspective, looks much worse than my own. I don’t pretend to know what those other types of suffering are like. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that I have suffered as much as many people I know. But I do know that the same Lord who is with me in my pain can be with you in your pain – whether that pain is physical, emotional, relational, or something else. I am not an experiential expert on suffering. But the main thing I have to offer is to teach and apply what the Bible says about the topic. That’s why I’m taking on this sermon series.

Within the past sixty years or so, people in North America, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand (“Western culture”) have entered into a unique period in human history. Many of us who live in these places have come to look upon suffering as some sort of an aberration. What I mean is, we think suffering is an interruption to “normal life;” we picture it as something unusual, something that is not meant to happen. People in other parts of the world (and probably most people in my grandparents’ generation and earlier, in Western culture), understand that suffering is a normal part of life.

I grew up in a third-world country. A school-mate of mine always had to use crutches, because he had polio when he was little. Another acquaintance of mine died from tetanus. I had malaria nine different times. One of my closest friends nearly died from dengue fever. In Western Cultures, no one gets polio or tetanus anymore, because everyone is vaccinated for it. No one gets malaria in those cultures, and most have never even heard of dengue fever. Where I grew up, malnutrition was common. In America, the biggest “nutrition problem” among the poor is obesity.

Because Western cultures have reduced physical suffering, and increased life expectancy so dramatically, we can be lulled into thinking that suffering of any kind should be unusual. When suffering comes, we are surprised, and we often find ourselves in a spiritual crisis because of it. It doesn’t help that many Christians have been ensnared by the false teaching that if we follow God, things will go well for us in our lives. Christian author Tim Keller writes:

“Within the western secular view of things, suffering is seen as an interruption of the freedom to live as makes you happiest. The circumstances that cause suffering and the emotions that go with it must be removed and minimized or managed.” (Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, pg188)

However, the shocking truth is that Jesus taught the opposite:

24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matt 16:24-25, ESV2011)

 

27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:27, ESV2011)

The cross in the time of Jesus was a symbol of intense suffering and death. Clearly, he was saying that to follow Him means to deny ourselves, and submit to suffering, and even perhaps death, along the way. Clearly, that is exactly what happened to many of the first generation of Christians.

I realize that many Christians are unsure about this. Is suffering really supposed to be part of the Christian life? Consider these verses also:

33I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.” (John 16:32-33, HCSB)

12Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you. 13Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of the Messiah, so that you may also rejoice with great joy at the revelation of His glory. (1 Peter 4:12-13)

19For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. (1Pet 2:19-21, ESV2011)

Now, some people might say, “Ah, but Tom, those verses are only talking about persecution. If we live in a time and place without persecution, we should not expect to suffer.” Really? The Greek word in John 16:33, above is “thlipsis.” The literal meaning is “pressure.” It is translated variously as: tribulation, affliction, distress,  and pressure. The Greek word for persecution is quite distinct from this: diogmos (diokos for the verb). Jesus very clearly did not say “persecution,” here. Likewise, in the verse above, Peter does not use the word diogmos, but rather the most common New Testament word for suffering (patho, and various forms of it), which is far more general than just persecution.

There are a few other words used of suffering in the New Testament. I won’t bore you with them all, but they are all quite distinct from the word for persecution.

For instance, James writes of “trials”:

12A man who endures trials is blessed, because when he passes the test he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him. (Jas 1:12, HCSB)

2Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, 3knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing. (Jas 1:2-4, HCSB)

Though the words for suffering might include the possibility of persecution, they can, like in English, encompass all sorts of different pain, distress and hardship. If the Holy Spirit had meant us to believe that the only suffering Christians should face is persecution, then all these verses would have used diogmos, not the words that are actually there.

Here are a few more verses:

14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.  (Rom 8:14-17, ESV2011)

3Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. 4He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 5For as the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, so through Christ our comfort also overflows. 6If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation. If we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is experienced in your endurance of the same sufferings that we suffer. 7And our hope for you is firm, because we know that as you share in the sufferings, so you will share in the comfort. (2Cor 1:3-7, HCSB)

How about this one:

29For it has been given to you on Christ’s behalf not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for Him, 30having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I have. (Phil 1:29-30, HCSB)

I could do this all day. Excluding the word for persecution, suffering is mentioned literally hundreds of times in the New Testament, most often in the context of the lives of Christian believers. Paul describes his sufferings for Christ in 2 Corinthians:

23Are they servants of Christ? I’m talking like a madman — I’m a better one: with far more labors, many more imprisonments, far worse beatings, near death many times. 24Five times I received 39 lashes from Jews. 25Three times I was beaten with rods by the Romans. Once I was stoned by my enemies. Three times I was shipwrecked. I have spent a night and a day in the open sea. 26On frequent journeys, I faced dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own people, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the open country, dangers on the sea, and dangers among false brothers; 27labor and hardship, many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, often without food, cold, and lacking clothing. (2Cor 11:23-27, HCSB)

Paul does mention persecution, and suffering imposed upon him by sinful people. But he also mentions natural dangers (the sea, rivers) the suffering that comes with hard labor, travel, sleepless nights, lacking food and clothing. Later on, in the same letter, he mentions physical illness. All of it is “suffering.” All of it might be expected in the life of a believer.

Some people seem think, particularly about illness, that Jesus promised to heal every physical illness of all of his followers, even here on earth (before heaven), if they just have enough faith. Not only is there no such all-encompassing promise anywhere in the Bible, but these dozens and dozens of verses about suffering contradict such an idea. It is no lack of faith to say that true and faithful Christians suffer in a variety of ways – it is a core teaching of the New Testament. To argue otherwise is to claim that the apostles did not have enough faith. It would also cast condemnation upon every Christian who suffers from an illness.

Now, I don’t think that all this means that we are supposed to deliberately seek out suffering. I believe that would be foolish. But all of these verses about suffering are actually good news. If we are in the middle of suffering, it is good news to know that we are not alone, that Jesus and the apostles expected that we would encounter such things in this life, as they, themselves, did. In other words, suffering cannot derail God’s plan for your life. Suffering does not mean that somehow, something has gone horribly wrong. I want you to consider this carefully: Suffering can be very, very difficult. But it does not have to be evil.

God can work wonderful, amazing things through suffering. In fact, the very best thing that ever happened for humankind came about through suffering. It came not in spite of Jesus’ suffering, but because of it. Ultimate suffering was the means of bringing about ultimate good. If this tremendous good (our salvation) came through suffering, is it possible that our own suffering might bring also bring about good?

This is a big topic, and there is a lot more to say. I encourage you to write to me, and ask questions about it. At the same time, please be patient – I will try to cover some of the most obvious issues connected to suffering.

Let’s close with more words from Tim Keller:

“So suffering is at the very heart of the Christian faith. It is not only the way Christ became like and redeemed us, but it is one of the main ways we become like him and experience his redemption. And that means that our suffering, despite its painfulness, is also filled with purpose and usefulness.” (Tim Keller, Walking With God through Pain and Suffering)

WE NEED RESOURCES TO DO GOD’S WORK…..RIGHT?

judas-betrays-jesus

We think we could do a lot for God’s kingdom with twelve legions of angels. Or twelve million dollars, or twelve thousand people in our congregation, or – you get the picture. We think big and powerful is always good. We think we could do so much for God if only we had ______. But Jesus didn’t have ______.  Alone, with no weapons, no money, no power, Jesus accomplished the greatest thing for God’s kingdom that has ever been done.

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Download Matthew Part 94

Matthew #94.  Matthew 26:47-74

A lot of the so-called “contradictions” of the Bible take place in this section of the gospels. There are small details that differ between Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Some are details about what time certain things happened, or where exactly Jesus was taken, and when. For instance, John records that they took Jesus first to the house of Annas, who was the former High-Priest, and father-in-law to the current High-Priest, Caiaphas. John says that after that, they took him also to the house of Caiaphas. The other gospels record only that Jesus was taken to the house of Caiaphas. This isn’t actually a contradiction, but merely an omission. Matthew doesn’t say that Jesus was not taken to Annas, but rather, he simply doesn’t mention it. John agrees with the others that Jesus was also taken to the house of Caiaphas.

I haven’t examined each so-called contradiction in that much detail, but I suspect that they could all be reconciled in similar ways. The truth is, all four gospels substantially agree about what was said and done during this twenty-four hour period. In a court of law, four eye-witnesses that agreed so thoroughly would be considered very powerful evidence. The fact that each gospel writer has his own unique perspective of those events is normal, and to be expected. In addition, the fact that there are small differences is powerful evidence that the gospels were not made up after the fact. If it really happened, you would expect everyone to have some slightly different memories of it. If it was made up, or edited later, all four gospels would say exactly the same thing. Once more, we find what we would expect to find if the Bible is what it claims to be.

As we examine the text, again I remind you that there might be dozens of worthwhile teachings from this passage, all of which would be good and useful for disciples of Jesus. I’m simply giving you what the Holy Spirit gives me about this text at this time.

The first thing that jumps out to me are Jesus’ words to Judas: “Friend, why have you come?” Jesus knew why Judas had come. He already knew that Judas would betray him – we saw that in 26:21-25. So, why ask the question?

I think it is one more final opportunity for Judas to repent. We saw how Jesus gave Judas the opportunity to repent during the last supper (see Matthew #91), but once more Jesus is opening the door for Judas. I think he is saying, “Why did you follow through? Why, after I warned you, did you still do this? You should have stayed away.” I think even at this point, Judas could have repented. Jesus still would have been captured, but Judas could have broken down, asked Jesus for forgiveness, and come back to him. As we will see, he did not.

Next, comes the swordplay. John tells us that it was Peter who struck the blow, and that the man who lost his ear was a man named Malchus, a servant of the high priest. Luke tells us that Jesus healed the man. They all four tell us that Jesus put a stop to the violence almost immediately.

52Then Jesus told him, “Put your sword back in its place because all who take up a sword will perish by a sword. 53Or do you think that I cannot call on My Father, and He will provide Me at once with more than 12 legions of angels? 54How, then, would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen this way? ”

 55At that time Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out with swords and clubs, as if I were a criminal, to capture Me? Every day I used to sit, teaching in the temple complex, and you didn’t arrest Me. 56But all this has happened so that the prophetic Scriptureswould be fulfilled.”

Then all the disciples deserted Him and ran away. (Matt 26:52-56, HCSB)

Verse 52, of course, is the source of the famous quote: “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” I think this is worth unpacking a little bit.

First, we see in the New Testament a change from the Old. During Old Testament times, the people of Israel were often used by God militarily to punish rebellious nations. God even used the armies of pagan nations to discipline Israel. But in the New Testament, we have a change. Jesus now says that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. In other words, the time for God’s people to use physical violence for God’s purposes is over.

In political and religious discussions, it is common for non-Christians to say: “The Bible teaches violence to God’s enemies. How can you be so critical of other religions like Islam, which teaches the same?” But the Christian Bible does not approve violence as a means for Christians to advance God’s Kingdom. In Christianity, the New Testament supersedes the Old Testament; that is, we interpret the Old Testament through the lens of the New. If there is a difference, the New Testament supersedes the Old. Therefore, we see that Jesus taught that now, since His own death and resurrection that redeemed us, violence is not an appropriate way to advance the kingdom of God. I can only say that though Christians have sometimes claimed the support of the Bible in using violence, they did so in ignorance of the teaching of Jesus, who, after all, also told us to turn the other cheek when we are struck, and to love our enemies.  In addition, the New Testament teaches us that the real battle is not physical, but spiritual. Paul writes:

10Finally, be strengthened by the Lord and by His vast strength. 11Put on the full armor of God so that you can stand against the tactics of the Devil. 12For our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens. (Eph 6:10-12, HCSB)

Christians, either in the past, or in the present, who interpret the Bible  to condone violence (except in self-defense) are using bad and invalid interpretation practices. They are out of step with the entire history of Christian theology. Though the crusades and the Spanish Inquisition used violence in the name of Jesus, it cannot be justified with consistent Bible interpretation; it can’t be justified with words of Jesus himself. Christian theology has always been consistent on this.

Jesus, in his words to Peter about the sword, is saying this: “That isn’t how it works, Peter. If it worked that way, I could call down legions of angels to force people to submit to me.” Instead, in the spiritual battle, Jesus chose the way of humility, submission and even suffering. God’s kingdom comes about through those sorts of things.  We see that Peter, later in life, learned this lesson well. He writes to Christians in Asia Minor:

19For it brings favor if, mindful of God’s will, someone endures grief from suffering unjustly. 20For what credit is there if you sin and are punished, and you endure it? But when you do what is good and suffer, if you endure it, this brings favor with God. 21For you were called to this, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in His steps.

22He did not commit sin, and no deceit was found in His mouth; 23when He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He was suffering, He did not threaten but entrusted Himself to the One who judges justly.

 24He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness; you have been healed by His wounds. 25For you were like sheep going astray, but you have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls. (1Pet 2:19-25, HCSB, some parts made bold by me for emphasis)

I think there is a related lesson here, also. The kingdom of God is not made real, or advanced, through human beings forcing it. James writes:

for man’s anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness. James 1:20  (HCSB)

Jesus himself says, “How would the scriptures be fulfilled if I used all of the tremendous force at my disposal? How could the Kingdom of God be accomplished?”

We don’t think this way. We think we could do a lot for God’s kingdom with twelve legions of angels. Or twelve million dollars, or twelve thousand people in our congregation, or – you get the picture. We think big and powerful is always good. We think we could do so much for God if only we had ______. But Jesus didn’t have ______.  Alone, with no weapons, no money, no power, Jesus accomplished the greatest thing for God’s kingdom that has ever been done.

The kingdom is advanced, as Peter says, when we follow in Christ’s footsteps of suffering and humility. Many times I have seen people seek to advance the kingdom, not through violence per se, but through what I would call “force.”

I think I may have done that myself. I fancy myself a pretty intelligent guy. I’ve read a few books in my time, and I remember a lot of what I read. Every so often I meet someone who claims to be an atheist. This used to get me very excited, because I have yet to meet someone who can out-argue me about the reality of God and the reliability of the Bible. But the truth is, my arguments – which have plenty of intellectual “force” – have never convinced anyone to become a Christian. I have helped to lead a number of people into God’s kingdom, but it never came about through any kind of “force” at all. The kingdom of God doesn’t happen through violence or force.

I’ll leave you with one additional thought. The kingdom of God comes through suffering and humility: and that is scary. As Jesus embraced this right before their very eyes, as he declared that the scriptures were being fulfilled in their presence, the disciples ran away. I can’t help but think that if they had really known the end of the story, they might have stuck around. But even though Jesus had told them it would all be OK in the end, they were so shocked and terrified by what was happening, they fled. It was a mistake they never made again afterwards.

Sometimes, the suffering and humility that goes along with following Jesus might be scary or unpleasant. But Jesus has already told us how it will end. There is no reason to fear. To run away would be silly. It sometimes feels horrible in the middle of it, but the ending is better than we can imagine.

Let the Holy Spirit continue to speak to you about these verses today.

HOW DO YOU KNOW GOD LOVES YOU?

gethsemane2

All of the suffering that Jesus endured (and we haven’t even got to the worst of it, yet), he did for you. Every moment of his life, every stubbed toe, headache, splinter or cold, every time he was tired, hungry, lonely or in pain – it was all voluntary, and all of it was for you.Sometimes God is a mystery, and it seems like he’s distant, like he doesn’t care about us. The actions of Jesus show us definitively and conclusively that he loves us.

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Matthew #93.  Matthew 26:31-45

With these verses, we enter the time period  that is often called “the passion of our Lord.” I don’t like the expression, because it comes from people showing off their ancient language skills, and frankly, it doesn’t really make sense in English. Here’s why people call it “the passion.” One of the Greek words for suffering is “patho;” it is often found in the form “pascho.” In addition, one of the Latin words for suffering is “passio” (and Latin was used almost exclusively in the Medieval Church). From these, we get our English word, “passion.” However, the meaning of “passion” in English has changed. These days “passion” does not mean “suffering.” Even so, now you understand why the suffering of Jesus is called his “passion” by silly people who don’t care if they are understood by the general population.

As always, I want to remind you that several legitimate, Biblically-sound sermons might be preached on any given passage of scripture. In these last few chapters of Matthew especially, we could easily spend several weeks finding new and important things in just one passage. We could talk about prayer, or the weakness of the disciples. As I’ve prayed and studied this time, however, what the Holy Spirit has impressed upon me is to focus on Jesus, and his suffering for us.

I want to make sure we have the correct understanding of the suffering of Jesus. It would be easy to say, “You know, I don’t know what the big deal is. Jesus was God, so how hard was it, really, to go through the crucifixion?” I am going to explain this as non-theologically as possible. In some ways, maybe what I say will be simplistic, but I think it might help us.

When Jesus entered Mary’s womb, not only was he gaining his human body, but he was also leaving heaven, and all of its advantages, behind him. Paul describes it like this, writing to the Philippians:

5Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus, 6who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. 7Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form, 8He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death — even to death on a cross. (Phil 2:5-8, HCSB)

You may have heard the expression, “I’ll take you on with one hand tied behind my back!” In a real sense, that’s what Jesus was doing. In taking on human flesh, Jesus also voluntarily left behind all the power and privilege of his divine nature. He kept his own divinity “tied behind his back,” so to speak. He voluntarily limited himself to complete dependence on the Father.

So, for example, when Jesus did miracles, he wasn’t doing them with his own divine power as God-the-Son. Instead, the Father was doing them through Jesus, as Jesus trusted the Father and allowed Him to work. When Jesus knew what was coming in the future and prophesied about it, it wasn’t because he was making use of his own divine knowledge as God-the-Son. Instead, he knew these things only because the Father chose to reveal them to him. In the same way, there were some things that the Father did not choose to reveal to Jesus – such as the time of his return to earth (Matthew 24:36). Jesus chose to do and know only what the Father directed. The apostle John records several times when Jesus referred to this state of things:

19So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel. (John 5:19-20, ESV2011)

36But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me. (John 5:36, ESV2011)

28So Jesus said to them, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and that I do nothing on My own. But just as the Father taught Me, I say these things. 29The One who sent Me is with Me. He has not left Me alone, because I always do what pleases Him.” (John 8:28-29, HCSB)

All of this was completely voluntary on the part of Jesus. He did not have to do it. Without sinning or doing any sort of wrong, he could have said, “You know what, Father? I’m tired of living without indoor plumbing. Take me home.” He could have said, “I’m sick of being insulted and mocked by these ignorant, rebellious, arrogant people. Let’s pull the plug on this operation.”

Of course, if Jesus had done that, we would all be destined to burn in Hell for eternity. But that’s what we deserve, anyway. It would not have been wrong for Jesus to leave us to that fate. His entire life on earth was by his own choice, and it was all done for my sake and yours. Every headache, every splinter and stubbed toe, every moment of loneliness, every hunger-pang – every single moment of it was voluntary. He never would have had to experience fatigue, or sickness or grief or pain. Every time he was misunderstood, mocked, insulted or mistreated, it was his own choice to remain on earth and endure it – for our sake. Sometimes, we consider the suffering of a little baby who was born with a disease, and think how terrible and pointless that such a young an innocent child should be afflicted. Yet Jesus was more innocent than even a newborn baby. His suffering was even less deserved.

So first, we understand that the voluntary and innocent suffering of Jesus began at the moment of his birth, and continued throughout his entire life. As I said, every stubbed toe and every headache, cold, splinter, or fever, was undeserved suffering. And now, in Matthew 26, Jesus is coming to the very worst of it all. Let me make this clear – not only did Jesus suffer tremendously for our sake, and not for himself in any way – but at any moment, he had the option of ending it, and not going through the suffering. This must have been an enormously appealing option during the worst of his afflictions, and one that he could have taken without doing any wrong. Part of his suffering, therefore, involved denying himself the righteous option of getting out of it.

I think that sometime between when Judas left to get the temple soldiers, and when Jesus entered the Garden of Gethsemane, was the beginning of the final, and most intense suffering of Jesus on our behalf. Once more, I want to make it clear that every single moment of his time on earth was a voluntary hardship, and part of his overall suffering for us. But, of course, there is no doubt that the last eighteen hours or so, were an incredibly intense conclusion, without which, the other suffering would have been pointless.

This last, intense suffering starts with betrayal, weakness and abandonment among Jesus’ closest friends. It’s easy to look at Jesus as above all human emotion, but I don’t think so at all. He willingly subjected himself to everything it means to be human.

17Therefore, He had to be like His brothers in every way, so that He could become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18For since He Himself was tested and has suffered, He is able to help those who are tested. (Heb 2:17-18, HCSB)

And so, though we look at Judas through the lens of twenty centuries, Judas was, in fact, one of Jesus’ best friends. It must have been very, very hard for Jesus to realize that someone whom he has spent so much time with, someone he had invested so much in, had utterly rejected him.

Next, came the knowledge that his other followers, though they didn’t deliberately betray him, were ultimately going to abandon him in his hour of need.

Most of us have not experienced the kind of physical pain that Jesus did. We haven’t experienced the depth of emotional suffering – but we have experienced some of the same kinds of things. Our friends did not betray and leave us while we were dying (you couldn’t be reading this, otherwise), but if you live very long, you will experience that loneliness that comes with feeling that someone has abandoned you, or failed to care for you the way you expected. Jesus experienced that with an intensity that was incredibly deep. No one stood beside him in his hour of need. His closest friends couldn’t even stay awake while he agonized in prayer, and they abandoned him shortly after.

Not only was Jesus abandoned by his disciples, but also by God himself. We know that at some point, God-the-Father withdrew his presence and support from Jesus. We know that the arrangement was that God laid upon Jesus all of the sins of the world – our sins, and treated him as our sins deserved:

 He made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2Cor 5:21, HCSB)

God presented Him as a propitiation through faith in His blood, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. (Rom 3:25, HCSB)

This necessarily meant separation from the Father. For all of eternity, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit had lived in unbroken fellowship and one-ness. Even when Jesus came to earth as a human, though the relationship had to be different, there still was fellowship. But sometime during this night – I think, perhaps, not long after Judas left the supper – the Father deliberately withdrew his presence. For the first time in eternity, Jesus was completely separated from God – in a way that no human being has yet experienced. Romans 3:25 above says that God withheld the full punishment for human sin, and laid it all on Jesus. That means that no one has felt the full consequences of sin to the extent experienced by Jesus. No one has been cut off from God in the way Jesus was. No one has yet been so thoroughly rejected by God, as Jesus. The Bible says that at the end of time, those who do not repent and trust Jesus will also experience the hell of eternal separation from God. But until that time, only Jesus has experienced what that is like.

I think that the intensity and grief of Jesus’ prayers in the garden reflect that this separation had either begun, or had happened by that point.

So, what do we do with all of this? What does it mean for us? First, I think we can be quite confident that Jesus understands everything you may be going through when you struggle in your relationships with other people. He’s been lonely. He’s been betrayed. He’s been abandoned. The people closest to him didn’t seem to care.

Jesus also understands what it feels like to be abandoned by God – in ways that we may never feel. He can empathize with every kind of relationship-pain we might suffer.

Another thing I take away is this: Jesus is for you; he loves you. All of this that he went through (and we haven’t even got to the worst of it, yet), he did for you. Sometimes God is a mystery, and it seems like he’s distant, like he doesn’t care about us. The actions of Jesus show us definitively and conclusively that he loves us.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today.

SUFFERING, GRIEF AND HOPE

hope

The truth is earthly suffering is intolerable unless there is a glorious, loving, sorrow-free eternity. We Christians are a people of hope. But our hope is not primarily in this temporary life. Everyone dies, sooner or later. All hopes – for this life – come to an end. Jesus, as usual said it best: “You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.”

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

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Matthew #45 . Matthew 14:1-12

The first part of Matthew 14 relates the details of how John the Baptist was killed. It’s important for us to remember that the life and teachings of John the Baptist continued to influence a large number of Jews for at least a generation after he was killed. I think this is one reason Matthew describes this incident in detail – it would have been important to the readers he had in mind when he was writing.

Matthew has already told us that John was in prison. I want to spend a moment dwelling on the reason for that, and the thing that got him killed, because it may surprise us. The short version is, John was imprisoned, and then killed, for publicly supporting biblical sexual morality. He publicly said that Herod was wrong for having sexual relations with his brother’s wife, Herodias.

I point this out because I think it is very relevant today. Our culture is extremely intolerant of people who insist that sex has any moral significance in and of itself.

If you say that sex has intrinsic moral significance, then you set it within a larger moral framework and set limits to the legitimate use of sex. In doing so, you declare certain sexual acts illegitimate, something which is now considered hate speech…

By divesting sex of intrinsic moral significance [an activist] has helped to create a world where those who attempt to set limits to the legitimacy of sexual activity are seen as the moral equivalent of racists and the intellectual equivalent of flat-earthers: Irrational bigots who have no place in the public square. (Carl R Trueman, First Things, 2-23-15 http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2015/02/congratulating-wesleyan).

There are many people who call themselves Christians who either don’t know, or don’t believe what the bible says about sex. There are many more who don’t like it, and refuse to adhere to it. A lot of people think that it gives Christians a bad name if we go around saying what the bible says about sex. Even more suggest that sexual morality is a “secondary issue” and we Christians should stay out of it for the sake of the gospel.

But John the Baptist died for it.

He could have said, “Well what Herod does in his own bedroom is Herod’s own business.” It’s likely that he could have made a public apology to Herod and Herodias, and at least have been spared execution. But he didn’t. He insisted upon telling the truth, and doing so publicly, and not retracting it. It got him killed.

Someday, a sermon like this may lead to my own imprisonment. It is no longer a question of disagreement in our culture. The power-brokers in the media, academe and government, as well as millions of narrow-minded citizens, want people like John the Baptist to be silenced. They don’t want to hear something they disagree with.

We have not yet come to executions for saying that adultery is a sin. But our government is already considering laws that make it a hate-crime to say in a public speech that homosexual behavior is a sin. In October of 2014, the city of Houston demanded in a subpoena that pastors turn over any sermon or communication with their congregation that mentions homosexuality, the lesbian mayor or transgender issues. To refuse to turn over the sermons would have been contempt of court, punishable by imprisonment. The government’s position is that pastors were using their religious positions to campaign politically, since there was law on the ballot about gay and transgender issues. But the fact remains, when the pastors spoke about the law (if they did) they did so because the issues raised by it are of biblical concern, and it is manifest that the city government wanted to silence and punish them for it.

Now, please understand me clearly. I am not saying that we should go around investigating everyone’s sex life, looking for something to criticize. But I do think sometimes we Jesus-followers avoid the topic because we don’t like getting flack for calling sin “sin.” I simply want to point out that perhaps this passage shows us that the issue of sexual morality is more important than we want to think, and I do suspect that it is with that issue that the persecution of Christians will begin in the Western world. Lest we think it is a secondary issue, remember that John the Baptist died for speaking the truth about morality. I think we Christians should consider this very carefully before we decide to keep silent about it.

~

After John was killed, his disciples buried his body, and then they did something very important: they went to Jesus. There is no doubt that they were full of grief and sorrow. There is no doubt that some of them wondered why Jesus didn’t do anything to save John. But they went to him anyway.

Jesus’ reaction is also important:

When Jesus heard about it, He withdrew from there by boat to a remote place to be alone. (Matt 14:13)

Obviously, the news of John’s death had an impact on Jesus. He wanted to be alone to process it. Jesus and John were relatives, and they had known each other all their lives. John had worked hard to prepare people for the ministry of Jesus, and he had unfailingly pointed people toward him. In short, they were family, friends and ministry partners. And now John is gone. Jesus knew his eternal home was heaven. He knew he would see John there again. But that didn’t change the fact that just like us, Jesus experienced pain and suffering in the world, and it hit him hard at times.

I think it’s important for us to dwell on this for a minute. We human beings have a very difficult time with pain and suffering. How can a good and loving God let these things happen? The answers to this are only partial, and sometimes complex. But I take comfort from the example of Jesus here. On the one hand, he knows everything is going to be all right. In fact, he knows that in eternity, everything is better than all right. John’s suffering on earth is over. He himself will be with John again in just a few short years. On the other hand, in the present moment, he grieves.

The truth is earthly suffering is intolerable unless there is a glorious, loving, sorrow-free eternity. About a year ago, I spoke at the funeral of a twenty-one year old who died unexpectedly and tragically. I said then that of course it was good and right to grieve. I said that we Christians are also people of hope. But our hope is not primarily in this temporary life. Everyone dies, sooner or later. All hopes – for this life – come to an end. Paul writes:

If we have put our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone. But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also comes through a man. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits; afterward, at His coming, those who belong to Christ. (1Cor 15:19-23, HCSB)

Jesus shows us that it is good and appropriate to grieve the tragedies of this life. But he also gives us a better hope, an eternal hope. I am reminded of the old song, Wayfarin’ Stranger:

I’m just a poor, wayfarin’ stranger

Travelin’ through this world of woe

But there’s no sickness, no toil or danger

In that bright world to which I go.

 

I’m goin’ there to see my Father

I’m goin’ there no more to roam

I’m just a goin’ over Jordan

I’m just a goin’ over home.

Jesus, preparing his disciples for his own death, said this:

I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33, HCSB)

We will have trouble and suffering in the world. Hope which cannot apply equally to the free man with the possibility of making his life better, and also the man doomed to suffer and die in prison, is not hope at all. Jesus offers us real hope, eternal hope. There is a time for grief, and Jesus himself grieved for his dear friend and cousin John. If this was the experience of Jesus, we should not think that we will be exempt from it. But even in grief, there is hope, hope not based on everything coming out right here and now, but on something greater and more lasting than anything in this life.

Like John’s disciples, and Jesus himself, it is often appropriate to mourn. But also like John’s disciples, let us bring our grief to Jesus, and receive from him the eternal hope we so desperately need.

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