The Lord's Day Morning
August 26, 2007
Philippians 1:29-30 (2)
“The Gift of Suffering for Christ's Sake”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Now we're studying today from Philippians 1:29, the Apostle Paul's words that “it has been granted to us not only to believe, but also to suffer”. Let me just tell you ahead of time, we will only scratch the surface of this vitally important subject. I hope the message today is something of an hors d’oeuvre, something that will whet your appetite and give you a desire, a hunger actually, for more, so that you can learn more about what it means to join with Christ in the fellowship of His sufferings, and also so that you can understand more about the place of suffering in our lives as Christians.
Two older writers, writers from 1600 years ago, greatly encouraged me in this area as I was meditating on this truth during the week. Marius Victorinus was a philosopher and a lecturer, and a school teacher in Rome. For 61 years, he lectured in philosophy in that great city, and he was converted to Christ when he was 61 years old. And a year after he was converted, the Roman emperor decided that he was going to try and stamp out Christianity and cause Rome to go back to paganism. (The emperor's name was Julian – we typically call him Julian the Apostate.) And Victorinus was so committed to Christ and so thankful for what Christ had done for him, he insisted upon continuing to publicly profess his faith in Christ and to teach as a Christian, and so Julian shut down his school. It's very appropriate then that we hear these words based on Marius Victorinus’ meditations on Philippians 1:29 as we prepare for worship today. He says this:
“It was therefore within His purpose that He gave us the gift of trusting in Him. This was an incomparable gift. So we are to believe in such a way as to be ready to suffer for Him.”
Let's prepare to worship God.
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Philippians 1:29. The choir was singing of the greatest gift of love. The Apostle Paul in Philippians 1:29 is talking about two gifts, the gift of faith, and, perhaps surprisingly to you, the gift of suffering for Christ.
The Philippians are worried. The Philippians themselves face enormous opposition. There are the Roman pagans who view them as [followers of] an ignorant superstition that is a threat to the community, and eventually in their lifetime they will face official Roman persecutions approved by the emperor. They will face literal physical persecution because of their faith in Christ Jesus. Furthermore, they’re facing opposition from false teachers who are seeking to tear them apart from the gospel. And on top of all that, the missionary that they've sent out, the man who brought the gospel to them, the man who they think (rightly so) is the leading edge of God's expansion of the gospel to the Gentile world is in prison awaiting sentencing, chained to a Roman officer and has every possibility of going to his death through execution in the Roman court.
And they are discouraged, and so in verse 28, the Apostle Paul has urged them not to be threatened, not to be discouraged, not to be overwhelmed by the situation that they’re in–not that their situation isn't threatening and discouraging and overwhelming, but because there are truths about God, about Christ, about the gospel, about grace, in this world that are able to counter these very logical, very understandable, very overwhelming situations and circumstances, and opposition and threats that they are in fact dealing with…living through…encountering.
And so in verses 29-30, the Apostle Paul gives them an enormous encouragement, a reason why they should not be overwhelmed by the sufferings, the trials, the persecution, the ostracism, the mocking that they are incurring in Philippi from pagan Romans and others…why they should not be overwhelmed when they look and they see him in prison and potentially on his way to execution. And he tells them to remember that not only did the Lord give them the gift of faith for the sake of Christ, but that He gave them the gift of suffering for Christ.
It really is an amazing thing that Paul is saying to the Philippians. Paul wants the Philippians to see that not only is faith a gift, and not only…as he said in I Corinthians 13 and as the choir has just sung…not only is love a gift, but suffering for Christ is a gift. It's not a sign that God has abandoned them; it's not a sign of the failure of His power; it's not a sign of the defeat of His purposes in the world; it's not a sign of His punishment of their sin; it is not a sign of their lack of faith; rather, their suffering for Christ's sake is an enormous privilege. It is a blessing from God. It is a gift from Him. It is under His complete control.
Now. That encouragement that He gives to the Philippians ought to force us, I think, to think together about at least two things. The first thing is about suffering for Christ. What does it mean for us to suffer for Christ's sake? Are we suffering for Christ's sake? Are we ready to suffer for Christ's sake? Do we pray for the literally tens of millions of Christians around the world who are now suffering for Christ's sake?
Secondly, I think that this verse asks us to think hard about the general meaning of suffering in our lives: how God uses it; what it is for. We live in a day and time, we live in an age which sees the avoidance of suffering at all costs as a wise course of action. We live in a day and age where when suffering happens on either a small or grand scale, God is immediately called on the carpet. Let a bridge fall down in Minneapolis, Minnesota; let a hurricane hit the coast of Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana; let a tsunami sweep over the southeast Asian territory of Sumatra and elsewhere, and immediately what happens? God is called into the office, like a principal calling in a seventh grader–“Sit there in that chair right now. I want some explanations”–because God's at fault. God's got to give an account, because we assume that suffering is inherently wrong and shouldn't happen.
Within the Christian world there are of course people who say ‘If you really trust in Christ, you won't suffer. God wants you to be blessed. God wants you to be happy all the time. He doesn't want you to have trials, He doesn't want you to endure sufferings; He wants your whole life to be a blessing. If you are experiencing suffering, it is because you do not have enough faith.’ It is taught in books, it is taught on television, it is taught in churches, and so Christians today are very confused as to what to do or think or say about suffering.
Our forebears were not so unwise. Our forebears, when they encountered suffering for the sake of Christ, were not surprised. And when our forebears encountered general suffering, suffering for which there was not an easy and readily available explanation, they went to work in prayer seeking what lessons God would have them learn in that suffering — not accusing Him for allowing something to happen to them that shouldn't be happening, but accepting suffering to be a part of the Christian life, and only wanting to know what God's purposes were in that suffering. Our forebears were wise, and they were biblical, because this is precisely what the Apostle Paul is doing with the Philippians.
The Philippians are confused about the suffering that they are experiencing and that Paul is experiencing, and God has a word for them through the Apostle Paul as to how they are to view suffering, and suffering for Christ.
There are three things that I want to try and do today — and I want to emphasize “try.” There is no way that we can cover the massive ground of suffering in 25 minutes, and so what we're really going to do is outline this very, very important and practical subject, and I hope that it will create enough of an interest on your part that you will want to follow up in the Bible's manifold teaching about suffering in the Christian life.
Three things I want to try and do with you today: One, I want to look at the issue of suffering for Christ in God's sovereignty; two, I want to just in passing note that the Bible teaches that there is more than one kind of suffering. There are lots of different kinds, or types, of suffering, and we need to know that, because that will actually save us from errors in interpreting what we're going through. And then, thirdly, very quickly we will look at our preparation for and embrace of suffering for Christ and suffering in general.
Let's pray before we read God's word.
Heavenly Father, this is Your word. You mean it for our good, our edification, our maturing, and for Your glory. Grant that our hearts would receive this word from Your heart as from Your very lips, as the bread of life. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear the word of God. Philippians 1:29:
“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 how hear that I still have.”
Amen. Thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
How do you respond to suffering in this world? What's your instinctive reaction? Suffering on a grand scale, suffering due to massive natural catastrophes, or suffering in the lives of friends and loved ones? Is your natural instinct to ask what in the world is going on? To question God's wisdom or goodness, or power? To assume that suffering isn't supposed to be a part of life in this fallen world? To assume that it's an accident, a mistake?
The Apostle Paul is deeply concerned that the Philippians and you and me…he is deeply concerned that we would have a biblical view of suffering for Christ and for suffering in general, and that's what we want to outline today — and I want to emphasize “outline.”
I. Suffering for Christ's sake is a gift from God.
First of all, notice that the Apostle Paul teaches the Philippians that suffering for Christ's sake is a gift from God. Whereas they, in the midst of their experience of being opposed and threatened and persecuted by their contemporaries, being deeply discouraged by that circumstance, are not adequately responding to the truth that God is in control and in charge of that suffering that they are experiencing, and so he says to them point blank, ‘Don't you understand that just like your faith was a gift from God, so also this suffering that you are experiencing is a gift to you from God? This is not a mistake. It's not an accident. It's not something that God didn't see coming. It's something that God has in view in His good and perfect plan for you.’
Now when the Apostle Paul says this, you understand he is not speaking as some kind of dry-land sailor who doesn't know anything about suffering. This man, if you will remember, was beaten with a scourge five times with 39 lashes. Some people didn't survive one scourging in the Roman world. Did you know what scourging would often not only splay a person's flesh until the bone was exposed, but it would also often reveal or expose internal organs? Five times he was scourged with 39 lashes. Three times he was beaten with rods, twice he was shipwrecked, once he was stoned and left for dead. Too many times to count, he was run out of cities, pursued, mocked, and persecuted. And the Apostle Paul says to the Philippians, ‘Don't you understand that doing that for Jesus is a gift from God to me?’
Now to understand why, you have to turn back to Acts 9, verses 1 to about 16. Do you remember the story of Paul's conversion? Before Paul was “Paul”, he was Saul of Tarsus. He was a Pharisee. He was the leader of the group that was designed to stamp out Christianity in Israel and in the world. And as Saul of Tarsus, he and a team — a persecution team — was heading up from Jerusalem to Damascus, and they were going up to Damascus with the express purpose of harassing Christians, persecuting Christians, identifying Christians and causing them to suffer. The apostle — before he was the apostle — Saul had even had a part in holding the cloaks of the men who killed the first martyr, Stephen.
Yes, the Apostle Paul (before he was the Apostle Paul) was a religious persecutor, an inquisitor, an assassin, and so he was on his way up to Damascus to cause Christians to suffer, and something funny happened on the way to Damascus. Jesus met him. And he lost his sight, he was blinded. And then the men who were with him took him on to Damascus and left him in the home of a man named Judas. And then Jesus rang up Ananias and said, ‘Ananias, I want you to go to Strait Street, and I want you to go to the house of Judas. And I want you to find a man named Saul of Tarsus, and I want you to take him in, and I want you to minister to him.’ And Ananias says, ‘Ah, Lord, I've…ah…I've heard of this guy, and he was coming to Damascus to look for me. You’re saying you want me to go look for him?’ ‘Yes, Ananias.’
And then Jesus gives Ananias two encouragements. First He says, ‘Ananias, go find Saul, because he is praying. Saul is prostrate, blinded, utterly dependent upon Me. I have humbled him to the dust. He knows He needs Me. He's in such deep need right now, he doesn't know what to do. He's waiting for a word from Me, and I'm going to give that word to Him through you.’ And then the second thing that He says to Ananias is what? ‘I am going to show Saul how much he will suffer for Me.’ So the very first thing that Saul hears from this Christian who is the first person given to disciple him is, ‘You know, the Lord Jesus has told me how much you are going to suffer for Him.’ And you know what the Apostle Paul's response is to that? It is the response of saying, ‘You mean I get to suffer for the One whom I caused so much suffering? You mean I get to suffer for Jesus, when I deserve to be a tarred spot of incinerated ashes somewhere on the roadside on the way to Damascus? You mean I get to suffer for Christ? What a privilege! Because I am less than the least of the apostles, and yet God has counted it His will to give me the privilege to suffer for Christ.’
And Paul now says to the Philippians, ‘You get to enter into that same privilege, too, because you’re a Christian.’ Paul says God is in control even of your suffering at the hands of His enemies, and He has purposes in view even in that suffering. Be encouraged. This is not a mistake, this is not an accident, this is part of God's plan.
II. Suffering in the Scripture.
Now, suffering for Christ is not the only kind of suffering that the Bible speaks about. There are different ways we could enumerate it. Let me very, very quickly give you seven different kinds of suffering that are spoken about in the Scriptures.
There is the suffering of justice — when people get what they deserve — like when the children of Israel rebel against God in the wilderness, and 14,700 of them die of the plague. They rebelled against God, they spurned His revealed will, they blasphemed Him, they followed after their own hearts, they were judged on the spot. That is justice. The suffering of justice: where God, responding to sin and disobedience, brings judgment.
Now it's not the only kind of suffering in this world, but it does exist. The problem with Job's friends was that they thought that because Job was suffering, he must have been suffering because of his sin and disobedience. What they were wrong in was not recognizing that there are other kinds of suffering in the Bible.
Secondly, there's the suffering of discipline, as when the Lord says in Hebrews 12:5,6, that “whom the Lord loves, He disciplines.” Now discipline is not fun! None of the fifth graders are lining up and saying, ‘You know I would really like to get a paddling from Mr. Herring today. Could you send me down to his office so that I could be the first one to get a paddling today?’ None of us are lining up for spankings! Discipline hurts! It's supposed to. But it's not designed to destroy us, it's designed to do us good. It's not designed to punish us so that we receive the exact penalty of our crime, it is designed to deter us from doing the crime again. It's designed to mature us. So there's the suffering of discipline.
And then there's the suffering of fellowship — empathetic suffering, where one person's grief affects another, like in Isaiah 63:9, where the Lord says, “All of your afflictions are mine.” The Lord is saying if someone touches the apple of My eye, they might as well come after Me. It's the same thing, by the way, that happens when Jesus meets Saul in Acts 9. Do you remember when Jesus meets Saul on the road to Damascus, and He says, “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting them?” Is that what Jesus says? No. Jesus says, “Why are you persecuting Me?” Now, Saul was persecuting Christians, but as far as Jesus was concerned, you touch them, you touch Me.
Those of you who have ever ministered to a loved one who is undergoing a trial know what the suffering of fellowship is…when you would do anything in the world if you could take the place of your loved one enduring that suffering.
Then there's the suffering of witness. It's the kind of suffering that we see in the story of Job, where Job's suffering was going to witness to some grand truth about God and His glory and was going to teach millions and millions and even billions of people truths about God…the suffering of witness to who God is, and to how He works…although let me say in passing, there is no evidence from the book of Job that Job ever understood that about his suffering. He may not have ever known what God's plans and purposes were in his suffering. We, who are the beneficiaries of his suffering, millions upon millions of believers in the world who ever since his time have blessed his name, but there is no indication that Job ever understood that. There is a lesson hidden there as you evaluate your own suffering in this life.
There's of course the heartbreaking story of Hosea, whose wife is unfaithful to him and he endures great, great suffering because of her infidelity; and yet, her infidelity and his faithfulness are designed to teach us an enormous truth about God's love.
And then there's the suffering of the man born blind. The story is told in John 9. The disciples ask, “Is this man blind because of his parents’ sin?”
“No, he's blind so that the glory of God can be revealed in him. Be healed; receive your sight.”
Now the Bible says there is a suffering of witness in which testimony is given as to who God is, revelation is made of who God is, praise is given to God for His purposes.
Then, fifthly, there is final and eternal suffering in the Bible; that is, the suffering that comes at the end of this age. Though it is final suffering, it never ends.
Sixth, there is the suffering of substitution — vicarious suffering, suffering in another person's place. It is the kind of suffering that the Lord did on the cross. It was not a suffering He deserved, but He willingly, voluntarily, took the suffering in your place so that you would never have to experience the suffering of the full and unmitigated wrath of God's just judgment poured out on you. He suffered as a substitute.
And then there is the suffering of discipleship, mentioned here in Philippians 1:29: suffering for Christ's sake, as when the Christian has the privilege of enduring the rejection and trials and persecution because of loyalty to Christ.
There are many different kinds of suffering in this world, so the Apostle Paul wants us to understand that suffering for Christ's sake is a gift of God; second, that suffering for Christ is not the only kind of suffering in the Christian life; but the third and final thing that I want you to see is this: Christians should expect and prepare to suffer for Christ's sake.
III. Christians should expect and prepare to suffer for Christ's sake.
Christians should expect and prepare to suffer for Christ's sake. We need to be ready to identify with Him when His person and cause are despised. Cassie Bernall had no idea the morning that she walked into Columbine High School that that day she was going to have an opportunity to bear witness to Jesus Christ with one word…one word: “Yes.” You remember the question? “Are you a Christian?” “Yes,” she said. There's her testimony. She had no idea that that morning she was setting out on a day that she would become a martyr for Christ, but she was ready to give witness when the time came. She was prepared to say her yes. That was no long oration, no speech, no sermon. Just “yes.” That's it.
Those Turkish martyrs, only a few weeks ago when they went into the publishing office, into the printing office where they had been printing Bibles and Christian literature, they had no idea that that morning they would have the opportunity to shed their blood for Jesus Christ, but when the time came they were ready. They were prepared.
Are you ready for, are you prepared to suffer for Christ? This is not theoretical. Oh, it may be true that not everyone in here will face a direct threat on our lives because of our confession of faith, but let me quickly say, you understand that most persecution in the Christian world in the first three centuries under the rule of Rome was not like that. They didn't always come after Christians explicitly because they were confessing faith in Christ. They found other reasons: ‘Why won't you offer up those offerings as a part of you becoming a military officer? What's wrong with you? You’re not loyal to the empire.’ If you sat them down and said, “Are you persecuting Christians?” they wouldn't say, “Yeah, I'm persecuting Christians.” They would say, “No, I'm persecuting treasonists — disloyal, unfaithful, bad Roman citizens.”
Many of you may have the opportunity to lose your job because of your faithfulness to Christ. Just a few weeks ago, President Bush nominated a new Surgeon General. That Surgeon General was a member of the United Methodist Church and had been on a panel in which that church was dealing with homosexuality, and he had recommended against the practice of homosexual ordination. And when he came to be examined by the Senate, that did not sit well with his examiners. He lost a job because of his fidelity to what he believed to be the truth. You may have the opportunity to lose a job soon because of your fidelity to Christ and to Scripture.
But I want to say one other thing, too. What about our other suffering? What about suffering that is not explicitly and directly because of persecution against us for the faith of Christ? Well, John Piper has some very wise words that I want to share with you:
“In choosing to follow Christ in the way He directs, we choose all that this path includes under His sovereign providence. Thus, all suffering that comes in the path of obedience is suffering with Christ and for Christ. Whether it's cancer or conflict, all experiences of suffering in the path of Christian obedience, whether it's from persecution or sickness or accident, have this in common: they all threaten our faith in the goodness of God, and they tempt us to leave the path of obedience. Therefore, every triumph of faith and all perseverance and obedience are testimonies to the goodness of God and the preciousness of Christ, whether the enemy is sickness, Satan, sin, or sabotage.”
Do you see what Piper is saying? When the job is lost and you’re tempted to say, “Lord, You've abandoned me”…when you’re tempted to lose faith, and you say, “Lord, I will magnify Your name. I will believe in You”…when you stay in a marriage and you’re facing impossible situations, and you say, “Lord, I will do this for Your glory”…when you've gotten the terminal diagnosis, and you say, instead of ‘Lord, You don't care about me,’ but rather, “Lord, I want You to get the glory in this, and I want this to be a witness to my children and to my grandchildren, and to all of my friends,” that general suffering is being offered up as a sweet smelling aroma to Christ: “Lord, take this and be glorified by it.”
Piper's not through. He goes on to say:
“Not only that, the suffering of sickness and the suffering of persecution have this in common: They are both intended by Satan for the destruction of our faith, and they’re governed by God for the purifying of our faith. Suffering for persecution and sickness are often indistinguishable. Suppose that the Apostle Paul had gotten pneumonia from all his work and exposure. Would that pneumonia have been persecution? Would it have been suffering for the sake of Christ? Paul didn't make a distinction between being beaten by rods and having a cold while traveling between towns. For him all the suffering that befell him while serving Christ was a part of the cost of discipleship. When a missionary's child gets sick, that's a part of the missionary's faithfulness. But if any parent is walking in the path of obedience to God's calling, it is the same price. What turns sufferings into sufferings with and for Christ is not how intentional our enemies are, but how faithful we are. If we are Christ's, then what befalls us is for His glory and for our good, whether it is caused by enzymes or enemies. When we speak of the purposes of suffering, we mean both persecution and the accidents and sicknesses that befall us in any path of faith.”
So the question then for us — totally apart from how we will respond to the obligation to be ready and prepared to suffer for Christ when that comes explicitly and directly — the challenge for us is in all the other sufferings of our lives is will we say “This will be now when I serve Christ for His glory, and embrace this event as from His hand and seek to give Him praise.” And, my friends, that is an important standing issue, because if any one of us could know for just an instant all of the suffering that exists in this room, it would crush you. And so how we respond to this suffering is a vital part of our Christian discipleship.
You see? We've only just scratched the surface. Let's pray.
Lord God, grant that when we pick up our hymnals and sing “Be still, my soul, the Lord is on your side; bear patiently your cross of grief or pain”–grant that when we sing those words, that we will sing them in faith for Christ's sake. Amen.
[Congregational hymn: Be Still, My Soul]