John the Baptist prepares us for Jesus. His message of repentance

I want us to look at John the Baptist this Sunday and next for our Advent focus. Certainly a part of Advent is anticipating and preparing for the celebration of Christmas – the coming of Jesus to us. So we’re getting ready for this. But a part of it is also looking ahead so that we’re prepared for the second coming or second advent of Jesus.

And who better to prepare us than John, whose ministry it was to do just this. Today we’ll focus on how his message prepares us.

But first let’s look at –

John’s life and ministry

He was quite unique and that in several ways. He lived in the wilderness. He lived here before his ministry (Luke 1:80) and this is where he received his prophetic message (Luke 3:2). And he continued to minister from here. Matthew 3:1 says, “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea . . .”

In terms of food his diet was unique. Jesus said, he came “eating no bread and drinking no wine . . .” (Luke 7:33). He was known for fasting and certainly not for feasting. And he was known for abstaining from alcohol. Rather he ate “locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4).

His clothing was unique as well, “John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist . . .” (Matthew 3:4) looking very much like Elijah (2 Kings 1:8)

He was a prophet. He was widely acknowledged to be this by the people of Israel. The Jewish leadership in Jerusalem bore witness to this, when they said, “all the people . . . are convinced that John was a prophet” (Luke 20:6).

Jesus also held this view. Speaking of John he said, “What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes . . .” (Matthew 11:9). As we’ll see, he had a strong prophetic message for the people.

He was the forerunner, the one sent to prepare the way. As Jesus said, John is “more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’” (Matthew 11:9-10).

This comes from Malachi 3:1. And John is the fulfillment of this prophecy. He has this unique role of preparing the people for the Lord’s coming.

Another text that sees John as the forerunner is found in Luke3:4. It identifies John as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” This prophecy comes from Isaiah 40:3-5.

He prepared the way for Jesus in several ways. One is that he called people to look for the one to come. He said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” – Matthew 3:11-12.

He also identified Jesus as this one. He said, “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him (Jesus). I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” – John 1:32-34

He was faithful to his call. John did what God told him to do without hesitation. He didn’t care what others thought and he was fearless with those who held power.

He called the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to him a “brood of vipers” or a nest of poisonous snakes (Matthew 3:7). And proceeded to warn them of judgment in they didn’t change. He also criticized King Herod – Mark 6:18, which eventually led to his own death

And he was faithful to death. Matthew 14:6-11 tells this story. “When Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod, so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, ‘Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.’ And the king was sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given. He sent and had John beheaded in the prison, and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother.” He stayed true to God until the end.

Now we look at –

How John’s message prepares us for the coming of Jesus

John’s message was a message of repentance. He preached, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” – Matthew 3:2. So repentance is the way to prepare for the proper celebration of Christmas, as well as the second Advent of Jesus.

  • Repentance is a change of heart and mind that leads to changed behaviors.
  • It is choosing to turn away from our sin so that we can do God’s will from now on.

Here are some examples of John’s call to repentance. 1. He pointed out personal marital and sexual sins. “John had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’” – Mark 6:18. In this particular case Herod was guilty of both adultery and incest (Leviticus 18:16). And John was not afraid to call him to repentance.

2. He pointed out human greed. Our desire to have and to hold on to more than we need. “And the crowds asked him, ‘What then shall we do?’ And he answered them, ‘Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.’” – Luke 3:10-11. If you have more than you need, share your food and clothing with those who do not have these.

3. He pointed out the abuse of power, that is, using your power to take advantage of others. “Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than you are authorized to do.’” – Luke 3:12-13. That is, don’t do what most tax collectors do, take more than required in order to pad your own income. Only take what you are supposed to.

Not only did he address very specific issues of sin, he undercut their excuses for their unfaithfulness. They thought, Abraham’s our father. We’re the chosen people. It’s OK. We’ll be alright.

John said, “do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” – Matthew 3:9. So what if you are Abraham’s children! God can turn a rock into a child of Abraham. Repentance is what’s necessary.

As he said to them, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. . . Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” – Matthew 3:8, 10. Bearing the fruit of repentance is what God requires.

What about you? Where are you allowing yourself to continue in wrong behavior? Where are you holding out on God? Those areas that you would rather not think about? And what are your excuses? You think, well God doesn’t really care about that issue. Or, hey, I go to church. Well, God can make church members out of rocks too! That won’t rescue you.

John teaches us that getting ready for Jesus’ Advent means dealing with our sin through repentance. It means setting aside our excuses, our rationalizations and our justifications so that we begin to do God’s will.

And then, like the many sinners who responded to John in his day (Matthew 21:32), we too can confess our sins and find forgiveness (Mark 1:4-8). And then we will be ready to welcome Jesus and follow him in all of life.

Christians and wealth. Luke 12:13-21

Jesus has a lot to say about his disciples and wealth. In fact, besides the general theme of the kingdom of God, there’s nothing he talks about more. And what he has to say is quite radical, especially to us, who live in what is certainly the most wealthy country that has ever existed; and who live in a culture that glories in wealth – in the seeking of it and in the indulging of it. But Jesus teaches us another way – and this is our topic for today.

Our passage is found in –

Luke 12:13-21

13 Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18 Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (NRSV)

I chose this text for two reasons. First, because it shows us how serious this topic is. God says, “You fool” to the man as an expression of judgment and condemnation. And we don’t want to be called fools by God or be condemned.

Second, because it gives us the closest thing to a definition of what it means to be wealthy that I can find from Jesus. There is an abundance beyond one’s needs (bigger barns), which you store up for yourself. It’s as simple as that. It’s not how much you make. It’s how much you keep for yourself. So if you’re here today and you have a large income Jesus isn’t necessarily talking to you. Maybe. Maybe not. And, if you’re here today and you have a small income Jesus may well be talking to you. Maybe. Maybe not. In both cases it all depends on what you do with what you have.

With this background in place, let me share with you three things that Jesus teaches regarding wealth. And the first is –

Don’t go on accumulating wealth

There are two obvious reasons to accumulate wealth beyond our needs, both of which will kill us spiritually:

1. We want wealth as our security, to rely on in an uncertain world. The farmer stored up his abundance in bigger barns to take care of his future. But this is not loving God with all our heart – the greatest commandment. This is idolatry, which is actually hatred of God, because we make wealth to be our true god. We trust in it to take care of us.

As Jesus said in Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”

2. We want wealth in order to enjoy it. The farmer said to himself, “relax, eat, drink, be merry” (v. 19). But this is not loving our neighbor – the second greatest commandment. This is love self love and hatred of our neighbors. For even though there are many in the world who don’t have their basic needs met – including fellow believers – we want to keep our abundance for ourselves, for our fleshly desires and comforts.

So whether we accumulate wealth beyond our needs for the sake of idolatry – which is hatred of God, or indulgence – which is hatred of our neighbors, our lives with God will be destroyed. And so we should have nothing to do with it.

Hear the words of Jesus from our passage in v. 15 – “be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” And hear the words of the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 6:9 – “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.”

Love God, not your wealth

This has to do with getting our heart in the right place regarding our wealth.

1. Be content with God’s provision for you. Hebrews 13:5 says, “Keep your life free from love of money and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’” Give up seeking after more and more and more. Work hard, but be satisfied with God’s supply whether it’s much or little, because he’s with us and that’s our true treasure.

2. Give up your possessions. Jesus says in Luke 14:33, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up (or renounce) all your possessions.” (NRSV) Notice he isn’t talking about a certain percentage, say 10%. He’s talking about all our possessions, all we have.

We have to recognize that whatever God gives you is not your own, it’s God’s. And if he takes it all, or asks you to give it all away – that’s fine. But how many of us can say our hearts are committed to this? Do we own our possessions or do they own us? This is talked about in Acts 4:32 when it says about the early Christians,  “and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own,” but they were willing to part with them.

So this is a call to dethrone your possessions, because without this we can’t follow Jesus. As he says, “none of you can become my disciple . . .” if you don’t do this.

Well, if we give up holding onto our abundance for our security and comforts, and if we have a right heart toward our possessions being content with God’s supply and renouncing what we do have – then we are ready to do with them what God wants us to do with them, which is to –

Love others with radical generosity

We are to act with our wealth to love our neighbor. Let me just highlight two basic patterns for doing this in the New Testament.

1. We give to the needy. Jesus says in Luke 12:33 – “Sell your possessions and give to the needy.” Jesus isn’t saying, “become needy” but rather get rid of your excess – sell it, give it to those in need. (And you can even give up what you need to help others, because giving sacrificially is encouraged, as we learn from the story of the widow who gave all she had in Luke 21:1-4.)

An example of this is seen in the early Jerusalem church in Acts 2 and 4. As there was need, those who had excess would sell and give to the needy among them – 2:45; 4:34-37.

2. We share what we have with others. Jesus said this in Luke 14:12-14 – “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers and sisters or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”

Use what you have for God’s kingdom. It’s God’s so share it.

An example of this is found in Romans 16:23 – “Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you.” Here was a well to do man who used his large house to host the church in Corinth (they had no building) and he hosted Paul as well.

A final word, wealth is dangerous. But only if you accumulate it for yourself. The other side of this is that wealth is a blessing of the Lord, as Psalm 112 says, but again, only if you are generous with it.

Wealth is a strange thing spiritually. It’s from God, but if you keep it for yourself, it’s like trying to store up God’s provision of manna – it spoils and becomes a bad thing. But if you’re generous with it, you can bless many in need and thus store up treasures for yourselves in heaven. Wealth can be a curse or a blessing and it’s your choice which it will be in your life.

Giving thanks in difficult circumstances

1 Thessalonians 5:16, 18

Our text today is from 1 Thessalonians 5:16 and 18. v. 16 says “Rejoice always” and v. 18 says, “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Our focus today is on why we can rejoice and give thanks “always” or “in all circumstances.”

Now it’s easy to rejoice and give thanks when God answers prayers and delivers us from our problems, although certainly sometimes we forget to do this. But it’s surely more difficult to give thanks when things are going badly for us. But it is possible.

Let’s look at some –

Examples of rejoicing in difficult circumstances

The twelve apostles did this. They were put in prison for their preaching but were miraculously released. Then whey they preached more, they were taken to stand before the governing authorities where they were beaten and warned to stop preaching. Acts 5:41 says, “Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.”

Paul and Silas rejoiced when things were hard. In Acts 16 Paul cast out a fortune telling demon from a slave girl. This made the owners mad because they made money off of her. They promptly caused a stir and got Paul and Silas in trouble with the authorities.

Vs. 23-25 say, “And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison . . . into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them . . ..” They were unjustly beaten, arrested and shackled – but they were singing praises to God.

This happened just before Paul came to Thessalonica, so he knew what he was talking about when he told them “rejoice always . . .  (and) give thanks in all circumstances.”

And the Thessalonians themselves knew about rejoicing in suffering. From the time they first believed they suffered. 1 Thessalonians 1:6 says, “you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit.” They suffered, but they had joy.

Finally, the readers of the letter to the Hebrews. They had undergone persecution and the writer reminds them of this in 10:34, “ . . . you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” Can you imagine having all your goods hauled away because of your faith – your big screen TV, your dining set, your couches? Would you be able to keep things in perspective and still be joyful?

They did. And we can too by God’s grace. It’s difficult. But it is possible.

Now let’s look at –

Why we can rejoice in all circumstances

– including when things are difficult. It certainly can’t be based on our feelings, these change all the time. It has to be based on something much stronger and more stable – our faith. So here are four aspects of our faith that show us why we can do this:

1. God is worthy of praise – period. Nothing else needs to be said. Whether we feel like praising God or not – God is worthy. Whether we’re in good times or in bad times, it doesn’t matter. God is still the same – yesterday, today and forever and is still worthy of our praises.

Apart from anything God may or may not do for me; apart from whether God allows me to go through good times or bad, God is worthy of praise for who God is. God is awesome! God is holy! God is good! None of this changes based on our circumstances.

Habakkuk the prophet lived in a difficult time. The people were unfaithful to God. And he knew that judgment was coming – things were going to get worse. But he praised God anyway, because God deserves to be praised. Habakkuk 3:17-18 says, “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord . . ..” I believe that this is the purest form of praise to God because it’s not dependent on something that we get from God.

2. God has blessed us in many ways. Even in the worst of times, if we’re able to step back and think about it, we can recognize that this is true.

James 1:17 says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father . . ..” You have been given the gift of life. Also think about your abilities, your strengths, your family, your friends, your home – whatever good thing you are or have is from God.

And this includes our salvation – God’s grace and mercy to us in Jesus Christ, forgiveness of our sins, new life by the Spirit, a relationship with God, fellow believers who walk with us, strength and peace in difficult times – all these are gifts from God as well.

And so despite whatever else may be going on we can give thanks for God’s blessing to us.

3. God gives us hope for the future. God allows each of us to go through hard times, and a part of this is simply living in this sinful and broken world where evil is normal. But in the midst of this as Christians we have a hope for something better. This life is not all that there is. In fact, we are to live for the life that is to come, not this one.

When Jesus talked about suffering for our faith; being reviled and slandered, he said, “Rejoice and be glad” Why? “For your reward is great in heaven . . .” – Matthew 5:12.

In 1 Peter 1:6 Peter tells his readers that “now for a little while . . . you have been grieved by various trials.” Just before this he said, “in this you rejoice.” Why do they rejoice in their trials? It’s because of what he had just mentioned in vs. 4-5. They have “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven . . . a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

This hope puts things in perspective for us as Christians. Yes, we will suffer in this life. But we will be blessed in the world to come. And in fact the blessing will outweigh the sufferings. Paul says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” – Romans 8:18. Similarly he says, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” – 2 Corinthians 4:17. Our suffering may well be great, but what awaits us is far greater. God gives up hope for the future.

4. God harnesses trials for our good. We go through fiery trials. This is an image that is used in Scripture (Isaiah 48:10; 1 Peter 1:7). And it makes a point. Fire can consume or it can refine. If we go through the fire in faith we will not be consumed. Rather, God uses the flames to refine and purify us.

God is able to bring good out of pain, suffering and tears. This doesn’t mean that God causes the pain, only that God is greater than whatever evil befalls us.

Paul makes this point in Romans 8:28. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” God is able to work in and through all that happens to us to bring some good to us.

James tells his readers, “Count it all joy” when you suffer various kinds of trials. Why? “for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” – James 1:2-4.

Along the same lines, Paul says, “. . . we rejoice in our sufferings.” Why? “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope . . .” – Romans 5:3-4.

The world will throw hard times at us left and right. But when we endure them in faith, God brings something good out of them for us. That’s how great God is. And we can give thanks for this. That’s how great God is. And we can give thanks for this.

Complete love. Matthew 5:43-48

We’re looking today at Matthew 5:43-48. In this passage Jesus teaches us to love our enemies.

These verses are a part of the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5-7. And in chapter 5 this topic of loving enemies is the culminating example of the six that Jesus gives of how his teaching goes beyond what Moses taught.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.

For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

 As we begin, I invite you to think about someone who’s an enemy to you. That is, someone who has harmed or hurt you or those you love, who seems threatening, who opposes you, who slanders you, who dislikes you. Now, this may well be someone very close to you, even a family member – and you may not technically classify them as an “enemy” – but this teaching applies nevertheless.

My prayer this morning is that as we look at this passage – God will work in us a deep love for our enemies and bring about in us an ever greater Christ-likeness in this area.

Let me share four things with you from this passage about loving enemies:

1. Jesus teaches us to return good for harm

Moses, of course, taught that we’re to return harm for harm. This comes out clearly in the example just before ours in Matthew 5:38, where Jesus quotes Moses regarding “an eye for an eye.”

But it’s also in our passage. For although Moses taught in Leviticus 19:18 to forsake revenge and love your neighbor – that is, your fellow Israelite, he also taught in Deuteronomy 23:3-6 to hate the enemy who is an outsider, who does you harm, that is, the Ammonite and the Moabite.

These were the descendants of Lot who didn’t give the Israelites food and water in their time of need after the Exodus, but rather tried to curse them by hiring Balaam the prophet. Because of this, Israel is commanded never to act for their well-being. Deuteronomy 23:6 says, “You shall not seek their peace or their prosperity all your days forever.” So you have the harm they did to Israel, and then how Israel is to harm them in return. This is harm for harm or the pattern of an eye for an eye.

Indeed, this is where Jesus gets the phrase in v. 43 – “You have heard that it was said . . . hate your enemy.” But Jesus changes this. After laying out Moses’ position he says in v. 44 – “But I say to you . . ..”  If you have an enemy, don’t hate them – love them. If someone persecutes you, don’t curse them – pray for them. As is the case in all six examples of righteousness in Matthew 5, Jesus is calling us to a higher standard. Even when someone harms you, return good for evil.

This teaching is echoed by the apostle Peter in 1 Peter 3:9 – “Do not repay harm for harm or abuse for abuse; but on the contrary repay with a blessing.” The apostle Paul says it this way in 1 Thessalonians 5:15 – “See that none of you repay harm for harm, but always seek to do what is good to one another and to all.”

Although returning harm for harm is the standard of Moses and the standard of worldly governments in dealing with evil, Jesus calls us to his higher way. And this is how we are to treat our enemies – even the person you have thought of this morning.

 2. This teaching is packaged in a contrast between incomplete and complete love

In v. 48 the word “perfect” can also be translated as “complete.” This is, at least in part, where I’m getting this idea of complete love from.

  • Incomplete love means loving only certain people – those who are in your group, or those who do good to you.
  • Complete or perfect love means loving everyone: those who do good to you and those who harm you; those who are a part of your group and who are not a part of your group (whether it’s your religious, ethnic, cultural or national group)

It’s complete love because it encompasses all people.

Jesus gives two examples of incomplete love.

  • In v. 46 – tax collectors love only those who love them, a subset of all people.
  • In v. 47 – Gentiles greet only those in their own group, again a subset of all people.

Now these are, obviously, negative examples. You can tell this by reading vs. 46-47 – “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” Again, Jesus is calling us to a higher standard than what “tax collectors,” “Gentiles,” or as he says in Luke 6 (vs. 32 and 33), “sinners” live by – the standard of incomplete love.

Jesus also gives us two examples of complete love.

  • In v. 45 – the Father gives sunshine to the good and the evil.
  • In v. 45 – the Father gives rain to the just and the unjust.

And, of course, in an agricultural context, giving sunshine and rain means that God supplies food to all. God feeds even his enemies.

The point here is that the Father’s love is complete. It includes everyone. And if tax collectors and Gentiles are not a model for us, here the Father certainly is, for Jesus calls us to emulate this love of the Father.

Now, we always try to draw boundaries on who we have to love, to make our lives easier. We are often like the lawyer in Luke 10, who, knowing that he’s called to love his neighbor, asked Jesus, “who really is my neighbor?” Does it really include my enemies, like the wretched Samaritans???

We try to tame Jesus’ words. But his teaching is clear here. Our love is to include all people – any enemies we might have. As he says in v. 48 about love, “You therefore must be complete in your love, as your heavenly Father is complete in his love.” And yes, it includes the person you have thought of today, who has harmed you.

3. Loving enemies is about actions that benefit them

Love is not merely an emotion or an inner intention that doesn’t bear fruit in good actions. After all, Jesus teaches us that a tree is known by its fruit. That is to say, what is within our hearts is what comes out in the fruit of our deeds and words (Matthew 7:20; 12:33-34). If we love someone it will show up in our deeds; how we act toward them.

Here are some examples from our verses:

– When Jesus says, “love your enemies,” it can be paraphrased, don’t harm, but care about and do good to your enemies. Right? This is what love means.

– When he says, “pray for those who persecute you,” it can be paraphrased, ask God to be merciful and bless those who persecute you.

– When he talks about the example of the Father it shows us that God feeds his enemies, and so we are to feed our enemies.

– When he says don’t be like the Gentiles who only greet people of their own group he points us to bless all people with the greeting of “peace” or “shalom” which was the standard Jewish blessing, a wish for their well-being.

As a side note here, notice the contrast in these last two examples of feeding and blessing enemies with Moses in Deuteronomy 23:

  • The Ammonites and Moabites did not give Israel food. Instead of returning the same, as Moses commanded, we are to feed our enemies.
  • Also, the Ammonites and Moabites sought to curse Israel. Instead of returning harm for harm, as Moses said, we are to bless our enemies.

If we look further in the New Testament and the example of God, love includes self-sacrifice for enemies. Not only does God give food to his enemies, he gave his Son.

Romans 5:8 says, “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And Romans 5:10 goes on to say, “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God.” God loved us when we were his enemies.

And following the example of God, loving our enemies means that we are to act for their well-being even to the point of self-sacrifice. And this applies to the person you have thought of today.

Now, although this might not be a temptation with regard to the person you’re thinking about, let me say that based on what we’ve just seen, whatever love means, it doesn’t include killing them.

4. There’s a promise here for those who love their enemies

Loving enemies is really hard. When we’re wronged it can make us angry. It can cause us fear and distress. It can deeply wound us. All of these things make us want to strike back. An eye for an eye – if not more. We need strength from the Spirit to overcome the desires of our flesh. We have to give our anger and fear and pain over to God and trust that God will take care of us and help us.

Not that this means you allow people to continue to harm you. It simply means that whatever you do, you don’t resort to the pattern of harm for harm.

Loving enemies is really hard. So, as an encouragement to us, Jesus gives us a promise, which gives us hope.

In v. 45 he says that we are to love our enemies, “so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” To be a “son” here is not about being male. It’s not about gender, but about a certain social status – the status of an inheritor. The son inherits the Father’s blessings.

When we look at the overall context of Matthew 5:17-48 it’s all about “Who will inherit the Kingdom?” “Who will gain the Father’s blessings?” In Matthew 5:20 Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Then Jesus gives us the six examples of the greater righteousness necessary to enter the Kingdom, culminating in the example of enemy love. So what Jesus is saying, is that those who don’t practice enemy love are no better than tax collectors and Gentiles. Their practice of righteousness is no different. As he says in v. 46 – “What reward do you have?”

But, 1) those who love their enemies, by God’s help, imitate the Father. And by imitating the Father, 2) they show that they are true sons of the Father – for like Father, like son. And since they’re true sons or children, they show that 3) they will inherit the Father’s blessings; that is, the kingdom of God.

So in the midst of the difficulty of loving our enemies, we have a promise of blessing and reward. It’s worth it. And we need to remember this in our struggles with our enemies.

Jesus heals a man who can’t hear or speak well. Mark 7:32-37

The literary structure of Mark 7:32-37

We’re back in the Gospel of Mark today looking at 7:32-37 and how Jesus heals a man who can’t hear or speak well. (This is one of three stories in Mark that are not a part of any other Gospel.)

Last time we saw how Jesus went into the region of Tyre and Sidon – a Gentile area – and he did so to get away from the conflict and crowds in Galilee. Well, today he continues on his –

Trip through Gentile territory

Mark 7 trip thru Gentile territory

On the map you can see how he left Galilee to the region of Tyre. v. 31, which comes just before our story says, “Then Jesus returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.” So he goes over 20 miles north to Sidon, and then to the South Eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, which is also a predominantly Gentile area – called the Decapolis (Although see Robert Stein, Commentary on Mark)

Which brings us to –

 

Our story

32And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him.

So this man, most likely a Gentile, can’t hear. And he also has a speech impediment. The word used here literally means “to speak with difficulty,” which could just mean that he’s been deaf from birth and so has trouble speaking.

How did these people know about Jesus? Well, it could be from word of mouth, like with the Syrophoenician woman who had heard about Jesus far away from Galilee. But also remember that when Jesus cast out the Legion of demons from a man, from this area, he said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” And Mark goes on, “And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.” (Mark 5:19-20) Perhaps this is why Jesus is known in this region.

They want Jesus to touch this man, which means heal him (Mark 5:23; 8:22). And they’re imploring Jesus to do this.

 33And taking him aside from the crowd privately . . .

Now there’s a crowd in a Gentile area, not just in Galilee! Jesus’ reputation is spreading. But Jesus doesn’t want to draw a lot of attention to himself; he’s trying to get away from crowds. So he goes to a more private place with the man and presumably those who brought him to be healed.

. . . he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue.

This is one of the most detailed descriptions of how Jesus went about healing someone, although there’s no reason to think he did the same things each time.

Here Jesus touches the body parts that need healing. He puts his finger into his ears and apparently he spits on his finger and then touches it to the man’s tongue. Jesus uses his saliva here and in two other places (Mark 8:23, John 9:6). Now this strikes most of us, I would think, as pretty gross! But some ancients thought that saliva had healing properties, especially from great people.

Is Jesus showing the deaf man, through motions, what he’s doing – seeking to heal his ears and tongue? A kind of sign language? Maybe.

34And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”

Jesus is praying and the sigh seems to be a part of this prayer (Romans 8:26), perhaps expressing his compassion for the man and his suffering and the intensity of his prayer.

And then Jesus commands that the body parts function. The command is an Aramaic word, the common language of the day for Jews and others in this region.

35And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

His ears are immediately opened in response to Jesus’ command. And here we see that he could speak, but not clearly. But now his tongue is released. The imagery is that of a tongue that is bound in place. The phrase can also be translated, “the chain of his tongue was loosed.”

36And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.

The charge to silence here is quite similar to Mark 1:44-45. Jesus doesn’t want to overwhelmed by crowds. He can’t fulfill his mission if all he does is heal everyone’s needs day and night.

He charges the man and his companions, apparently several times. Think how hard it would be for the friends to stay quiet about this. And then think how hard it would be for the man, who’s not only healed, but can now, for the first time speak clearly! Yet Jesus wants him to stay quiet!

Well, they do disobey, but you can be sympathetic as to why – Jesus’ greatness seems to demand it. The word “proclaimed” is a positive word throughout this gospel referring to proclaiming the good news of the salvation Jesus brings – which is what they’re doing.

37And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

 Jesus’ power amazes them – “they were astonished beyond measure.” What they just witnessed is not a common event. It’s extraordinary and it produces over the top amazement on their part.

There are two echoes of the Old Testament in this verse. First, the phrase “he has done all things well,” alludes to what Israel said about King David in his early reign in 2 Samuel 3:36 – “all things the king did pleased all the people.” Jesus is, of course, David’s descendant and his promised son; the Messiah.

The second echo comes from the last phrase “he even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” This is a reference to Isaiah 35:5-6 which says, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.” This passage speaks of God’s salvation of Israel, promised at the time of the exile, now coming to pass in Jesus – as this healing indicates – for a man who was deaf and mute is healed, just as predicted.

(This connection is confirmed in that the word used for “speech impediment” in v. 32 is only used in this verse in all the New Testament. And it is used only one time in all the Greek Old Testament (LXX) in Isaiah 35:6. Mark wants us to get the point.)

Let’s end with –

The take home

-for us today. In as much as this healing is a sign, that is, it points to truths beyond just the physical healing itself:

1. It tells us who Jesus is. Once again Jesus is the anointed one, the reference to 2 Samuel 3:36 and Jesus as the Son of David, come to fulfill the promises of God’s salvation, here from Isaiah 35:5-6.

2. It also symbolically portrays that Gentile ears can be opened to hear the good news and their tongues loosened to glorify God, just as with the Jews. (Alan Culpepper, Commentary on Mark, p. 243). This looks forward to what will be after Jesus is raised from the dead.

And in general we learn again that 3. Nothing is too difficult for Jesus. He can heal any condition. He can deal with any situation, even what we think is impossible. We too can be “astonished beyond measure.” Jesus still does all things well, as he works salvation and blessing in our lives.

How to overcome in times of suffering: The inner cross

We’re finishing up our series on Christians and suffering today. Last time we looked at three kinds of suffering we go through as Christians.

  • First, there’s the lowliness and suffering that comes from living in a fallen and sinful world – sickness, brokenness, tragedies and death.
  • Second there’s the lowliness and suffering we freely choose, in that we lower ourselves to love and serve others.
  • And finally there’s the lowliness and suffering that comes our way because of our connection to Jesus – rejection and persecution.

Anytime we go through these kinds of suffering it unleashes a struggle within us. Will we remain faithful to God? Will we take the easy way out of the test? Will we lay down our cross to find relief?

This struggle is a part of what I’m calling the inner cross. And my message today is this – the secret to being victorious in our times of suffering is to overcome by the Spirit in the realm of the inner cross.

First we look at –

Jesus’ inner cross: Mark 14:32-42

When Jesus faced his greatest trial – the cross – he experienced the inner turmoil of it all. Jesus was fully human and as he said to the disciples about humanity, “the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38).

Mark tells us, “And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.’” (Mark 14:33-34). Jesus doesn’t want to die, and certainly not the shameful death of a criminal or blasphemer on a cross (Hebrew 12:2).

Three times he prayed for deliverance. This, even though he knew it was God’s will for him to go to the cross. (He told his disciples this three times – Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34). But this is a final discernment. Is there not some other way, God? “And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me.’” (Mark 14:35-36). (See also Hebrews 5:7-8)

During these times of prayer he received help from the Spirit. As he said, “the Spirit indeed is willing” (Mark 14:38). The word “willing” can also be translated as “eager to be of service” or “ready.”

We see the evidence of the Spirit’s enablement in two ways: 1) Jesus prayed, “not what I will, but what you (Father God) will” (Mark 14:36). He submits his heart to the Father. And then 2) He rose up from prayer to do God’s will. He said, “The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.” (Mark 14:41-42). And he then went to the cross.

By the power of the Spirit Jesus crucified his human desire to live and be honored. He denied himself and took up his cross (Mark 8:34). He received strength to endure arrest, slander, shame, torture, crucifixion and death.

So there’s a death within before there’s a death without. He finds victory by the Spirit at Gethsemane, which allows him to find victory in his circumstances of suffering at Golgotha.

Paul’s teaching on the inner cross – Romans 8:1-17

There are several points of contact between Paul’s teaching here and the story we’ve just looked at. Paul seems to have Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane in the background as he teaches. 1) There’s the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit (Romans 8:5-8). 2) He talks about prayer to “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15). 3) There’s a theme of suffering (Romans 8:17; also 18-39). 4) And he highlights how the Spirit enables us to overcome (Romans 8:3-4, 13). We’ll focus on this last theme.

Because Jesus suffered for us and overcame, we receive the benefits of God’s salvation. After presenting in Romans 7 the futility of trying to obey God from the heart without the Spirit, Paul describes this salvation. We are forgiven – “there is now no more condemnation” (Romans 8:1). And we receive the Spirit of God into our lives (Romans 8:9, 15-16).

And because of our new relationship with God and the presence of the Spirit within in us we are enabled to fulfill “the righteous requirement of the law” (Romans 8:4). We are empowered to do God’s will. And we can do this because we “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4).

More specifically, we are enabled to crucify the desires of the flesh by the SpiritPaul says, “So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:12-13).

Paul is saying here that by the power of the Spirit within us, we are strengthened to be able to crucify our own desires that oppose God’s way. “By the Spirit we put to death” these desires and thus any deeds that would come from these desires. As he says in Galatians 5:16, “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”

Again, the Spirit is key. And again the inner cross – putting to death our wrong desires by the Spirit – is the key to walking faithfully before God in our times of suffering.

Let’s look at –

How this works

When we’re in a time of testing and suffering, and we’ve discerned that it’s God’s will for us to go through this, and we’re struggling within – so that “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh” (Galatians 5:17), like Jesus – we can call out to God our Father for help.

And in prayer we can receive encouragement and strength from the Spirit. Without the Spirit we would easily cave in. The desires of our flesh want to avoid suffering. The flesh wants the easy way out, it wants comfort and security. Or it leads us to just give up.

But the Spirit strengthens us to say no to the desires of our flesh. And when we say no a crucifixion takes place. There’s a death within to our own desires, so that we don’t act on these unfaithful desires of our flesh. By the Spirit we put them to death (Colossians 3:5). Our “old person” (Romans 6:6) dies a little bit more. This is the inner cross.

Also, there’s a resurrection within. The new person God is creating us to be is strengthened to walk in the path God has for us. We are raised to new life within so that we can walk in newness of life without.

Just as Jesus had to gain the victory at Gethsemane before he could gain the victory at Golgotha, so it is with us. We must prevail in the realm of the inner cross by the Spirit, before we will prevail in our lowliness and suffering.

Let me end with –

A word of encouragement

 1. We’ve been given all that we need to overcome by God’s grace. As 2 Peter 1:3 says, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness.” We’re not left to our own resources. We rely on God’s Spirit and power. As Paul says in talking about suffering, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” – Romans 8:37.

2. Even if we fail, God’s grace is sufficient. It’s true, as James tells us, “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). We will not always respond correctly to our times of trials and cross bearing. But as 1 John 1:9 teaches, //“if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” And then we can move forward again by God’s grace.

3. God will come through on his promises. As we’ve seen, the faithful will be exalted and blessed (Matthew 23:12, Luke 6:20-26, Mark 8:35). As Romans 8:17 says, we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”

On the day of the great reversal, when the kingdom comes in its fullness, we will inherit the blessings of the kingdom and we will be lifted up by God to receive honor and glory.

Our suffering as a cross

If one way of thinking about and processing our suffering is to see it as testing, which we’ve talked about, today we look at another way of framing it – our suffering as a cross. As we saw last time, Jesus calls every believer to take up their cross and follow him. And a cross involves lowliness and suffering. Today we go into more detail, starting with –

The three stages of the way of the cross – Philippians 2:6-11

The first two stages have to do with our downward movement. In Stage 1: We lower ourselves to love and serve others. Here the lowliness and suffering is freely chosen.

We not only experience the suffering of living in a fallen, broken world, we lower ourselves further. We choose to give up our privileges and rights, and use whatever gifts and strengths we have to love and serve others. We deny ourselves and lay down our lives for others to meet their needs and lift them up (Mark 8:34; 1 John 3:16-17). To follow Jesus in this way can bring great joy, but it will also involve loss, pain and suffering.

Let’s look at the example of Jesus: He set aside his glory at the right hand of the Father to come into our world to love and serve us. Paul says in Philippians 2:6-7 – “. . . though he was in the form of God, (he) did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped (or clung to), but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant . . ..” As Jesus said about himself in Mark 10:45, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve . . ..”

When he walked this earth he bore our troubles and burdens (Matthew 8:17; 17:17), he suffered through conflict, long hours of ministry work and stress to serve us (Mark 3:20). He was even betrayed and deserted by those closest to him. He laid down his life for us in all these ways (John 10:11; 1 John 3:16; Mark 10:45). And he did this without the honor that was due him as God’s Son, or often without any appreciation or thanks.

Jesus knew what it was like to be lowly and suffer because of his love and service to others.

In Stage 2: We lower ourselves to accept rejection and persecution. We don’t seek this kind of suffering, it finds us. We’re mistreated by others because of our connection and service to Jesus. This can involve ridicule, shame, insults, exclusion and even death (Luke 6:22). This takes us even lower.

Here’s the example of Jesus: Paul says in Philippians 2:8, “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” As Jesus said about himself in Mark 10:45, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

He accepted mockery, dishonor and torture. He also suffered within, saying in Gethsemane “my soul is sorrowful, even to the point of death” (Mark 14:34). He literally took up his cross and died on it (Mark 8:34-35). He was faithful unto death.

Jesus knew what it was like to suffer rejection and persecution and to go as low as one can go.

In Stage 3: God lifts us up. If we’re faithful in the first two stages of the way of the cross – we will experience the great reversal. God will intervene to exalt and bless us. This is how the kingdom of God works.

The example of Jesus: Paul says in Philippians 2:9-11, “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” The “therefore” that begins these verses has to do with Jesus’ faithfulness in lowering himself in the first two stages of the cross. Because he did this, God has exalted and blessed him.

Hebrews 12:2 says of Jesus, “for the joy that was set before him (he) endured the cross, despising the shame.” But then it goes on to say, “and (he) is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” He lowered himself and suffered. But God vindicated and exalted him.

Now this will most definitely happen for us when Jesus returns. But it can also happen even in this life as God blesses us and lifts us up in various ways. But these experiences are only a small taste compared to what’s to come – when we experience the fullness of the power, honor, wealth and well-being that awaits us.

Next, we look at –

Two questions

– that, I think, are pretty important. 1. Is our suffering just like Jesus’? Well, his suffering is certainly an example to us and an encouragement for us (Hebrews 12:3). As we just saw, if we remain faithful we too will be blessed by God.

But his suffering is also different than ours. His suffering and death on the cross is what provides for our salvation. Our suffering can be used by God, but it doesn’t save us or anyone else. It is, rather, the proper expression of our faith, lived out in deeds. It’s not about us becoming Jesus the savior, it’s about us taking up our cross and following after Jesus the savior (Mark 8:34).

2. What about the suffering of living in a broken world? Here the suffering is what comes to everyone; the trials that are common to all people (1 Corinthians 10:13). This includes sickness, disabilities, tragic accidents – among so many other things.

Jesus himself said that each day has “its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34); and he’s talking here about everyday life stresses like obtaining food and clothing. And Jesus experienced this kind of suffering. His step-father Joseph died, apparently when he was a child. And he lived in a land that was poor and under the oppressive rule of Rome.

Although this lowliness and suffering is not due to our faith, as Christians we understand that there will be no more tears, no more death and a new creation in the end, because Jesus overcame this on the cross. The solution to all suffering is the cross.

And as Christians we should see the suffering of living in a broken world that we experience in cruciform terms. Paul does this while referencing our general human lowliness and weakness in several places (e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:26-28; 2 Corinthians 4:7; 12:9) including his own lack of bodily strength and skill in public speaking (2 Corinthians 10:10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5). So although this kind of suffering isn’t unique to Christians, we view it and respond to it as a part of the way of the cross. Which is what we turn to now.

Viewing our suffering through the lens of a cross

There are many things we can do to find comfort, help and strength when we suffer. But here we’re looking at key aspects of a fundamental attitude or approach to our suffering.

1. Freely accept your suffering, whether it’s suffering that comes from our love and service to others, or from rejection and persecution, or from living in a fallen world.

Yes, pray for deliverance from suffering (Matthew 6:13, Philippians 1:19). Yes, use the means God makes available to you to overcome suffering, for instance treatment if you’re not well (1 Timothy 5:23). Yes, pray for healing. God loves to heal and he does so to glorify his name and to have mercy on us. Yes, if you can escape from persecution you are free to do so (Matthew 10:23).

And as we learn from the examples of Jesus and Paul we can even press God three times on a matter before we accept it. Jesus prayed three times to be spared the cross (Mark 14:32-42). Paul prayed three times to be spared his thorn (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). But once God said no three times, they accepted their suffering – without bitterness – and lived into it as God’s choice for them.

In the same way once we know that God wants us to go through this suffering, at least for a time, accept it and move forward knowing that God is in it.

2. In faith endure suffering knowing that it’s not the last word. It’s something we go through for now, but there’s an end and there’s great blessing in the end.

Hebrew 12:2 says, “for the joy that was set before him (Jesus) endured the cross.” The joy set before him was what was on the other side of the suffering – resurrection and blessing. In the same way Hebrews 12:1 encourages us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us.”

As we saw in the three stages of the cross, after our lowliness and suffering comes resurrection and blessing. And God will come through for us just as he did for Jesus:

  • The lowly will be exalted (Matthew 23:12)
  • Those who suffer for the sake of the kingdom will be blessed (Luke 6:20-26)
  • and whoever loses their life for Jesus will truly gain their life for the world to come (Mark 8:35).

So we ought not give up no matter the pain of our suffering. Because of God’s promises we know that suffering is not the last word and so we can have hope in the midst of our suffering.

3. Our suffering helps bring about the kingdom of God. God used Jesus’ cross suffering to establish the kingdom; the great reversal. Because the powers of evil, both spiritual and human, the same ones who preside over this broken world that we suffer in – because they killed an innocent Jesus, they are judged and brought down, while he is saved, vindicated and raised up.

In the same way, although our suffering doesn’t establish our salvation, we participate in this process that Jesus has begun of bringing down the powers of evil and advancing the kingdom, until this is completed with Jesus’ return. God uses us and our suffering to advance the kingdom of God, which puts a new light on what we go through.

Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 1:26-28 – “For consider your calling, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.” Notice he’s not just saying there will be a reversal. He’s saying that God will use us to help bring about the great reversal; “to shame” and “bring to nothing” the powers of evil. God uses our lowliness and suffering to advance his kingdom.

Seeing our suffering through the lens of the cross gives us a different perspective on our suffering, and one that can sustain us to endure in the midst of it.

Suffering & following Jesus go together

Of all things Jesus used a cross to talk about following him. A cross was used for killing criminals. A cross involved great suffering; it was an excruciatingly painful way to die. And to die on a cross was shameful. Only the lowest died this way, naked, on full display to the public. He used a cross in order to communicate a key truth about Christianity – suffering and following Jesus go together.

Jesus had to take the way of the cross – lowliness, suffering and death before God raised him up and blessed him. And the same is true for us.

This comes out clearly at a crucial transition in the center of the Gospel of Mark, in chapter 8. Jesus is rightly acknowledged as the Messiah (8:29). And so he immediately begins to teach his disciples what kind of Messiah he is. And he’s clear that he takes the lowly way of suffering and is about to die on a cross (8:31).

But Peter rebuked Jesus (8:32). This can’t be right! Peter was “seeing things merely from a human point of view” (8:33 NLT). He wanted a victorious Messiah reigning in worldly power in great pomp and circumstance.

And later James and John, the rest of Jesus’ inner circle, showed they were in the same place. In chapter 10 they saw the Messiah as one who is served, not one who serves; as one who lords it over others, not one who lays down his life (10:42-45). And they wanted the two highest seats next to Jesus in his earthly glory.

All three of Jesus’ closest disciples had their hearts set, not on the way of the cross – but on what we can call – the way of glory. The way of glory emphasizes this world and what it has to offer. It’s about moving up and gaining what you can of power, honor, wealth and comfort.

But not only did Jesus take the way of the cross, he calls any who follow him to do the same. As he said after rebuking Peter, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Jesus’ life of lowliness, self-denial and suffering is our model. Just as Jesus’ life was cruciform, our lives are to be cross shaped as well; marked by lowliness, self-denial and suffering. Suffering and following Jesus go together.

Now, our Christian lives are not just about suffering. Perhaps it’s helpful to talk about –

Three types of Christianity

 Before I noted the ‘already – not yet’ character of the kingdom of God; how God’s salvation has come – but it’s not yet all the way here. This idea helps us to spell out these three types.

1. “Not yet” Christianity. In this view our current lives are only about lowliness and suffering. God gives us the grace of his forgiveness, but little changes in us, nor does God work through us in powerful ways. (This view minimizes discipleship because we are not really able to follow Jesus.)

On the “already – not yet” scale, there’s very little of the kingdom here now and almost everything is yet to come. This is, I believe, an anemic form of Christianity.

And then there’s 2. “Already” Christianity. God’s kingdom has come in power; it’s here, except for the resurrection. And the kingdom is not about suffering but about earthly power, honor, wealth and comfort.It includes these things now.

On the “already – not yet” scale, almost all of the kingdom is here now and only a little is yet to come. This is a Christianity of glory.

  • The “super apostles” who boasted of their pedigree and gifts and exalted themselves over others are an example of this view (2 Corinthians 10-12).
  • Another example is when Christians seek to run the world now through the State and politics, as if their nation was the kingdom of God. Jesus will rule the world, but not until he returns. (This view minimizes discipleship because we have to have a low enough ethic to run the world, which involves an eye for an eye.)
  • Another illustration is when Christians teach that Jesus is the one who gives us the ‘American dream.’ God wants us to always have health and wealth here and now.

Instead of lowliness, this emphasizes being lifted up now.

If the first view overemphasizes our current lowliness and suffering, and the second overemphasizes our current freedom from lowliness and suffering, the final view presents the right balance.

3. “Already and not yet” ChristianityYes, this life will have its share of lowliness and suffering, because suffering and following Jesus go together. But it’s also true that the Spirit is working in and through us in powerful ways to make the kingdom real now. Yes, this life is not where we should seek out power, honor, wealth and comfort, but God gives us victory in all things.

On the “already – not yet” scale, this is in the middle. Much of the kingdom is here, but much is yet to come for sure. And just to be clear, what I’m saying is that this is New Testament Christianity.

Jesus is our model right? He calls us to follow him. And no one was more lowly or suffered like Jesus. But also no one was as full of the power of the Spirit to do great things for the kingdom as he.

We have to understand that lowliness and suffering, and the power of the Spirit go hand in hand. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:7 – “We have this treasure (the kingdom or the presence of the Spirit) in jars of clay (our weak, broken bodies), to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” Here we see weakness and surpassing power together in us at the same time. God said to Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9 – “My grace (in lowliness and suffering) is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” There is weakness and there is God’s power in our lives, not one or the other.

The fullness of power, honor, wealth and well-being come when the fullness of the kingdom comes. And it comes from God, not people. And it comes precisely to those who are now lowly, deny themselves and suffer for the kingdom. (This view maximizes discipleship. We are called to take up our cross and the Spirit empowers us to do just this. Lowliness and power are held in balance.)

Jesus talks in several places about how –

A great reversal is coming

Those who are high and exalted now, will be lowered and those who are low now, will be exalted. For instance in Matthew 23:12 he says – “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled,and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Those who lift themselves up seeking power, honor, wealth and comfort will be humbled, that is, God will bring them low. But whoever is lowly now for the sake of the kingdom, God will lift up on that day.

This reversal is stated in very stark terms in the beatitudes of Luke 6:20-26. Just to take one example, Blessed are you who are poor; for yours is the kingdom of God.”(v. 20). And“woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” (v. 24) Jesus tells us that those who compromise their faith to seek wealth (and also food, entertainment and reputation) will not enter the kingdom. But those who are lowly and suffer for faithfulness to the kingdom, that is, they experience poverty for this (and also hunger, weeping and slander) these faithful ones will enter the fullness of the kingdom.

In Mark 8:35 Jesus said, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” If we seek to save, preserve or focus on our life in this world, we will lose our life. But if we give up everything, deny ourselves and suffer for Jesus (Mark 8:34) we will find our lives in the fullness of the kingdom.

It is those who now follow Jesus in the way of the cross in lowliness, self-denial and suffering who will experience the promises of exaltation and blessing on that day.

Let me end with –

Some things to remember about suffering

 We shouldn’t glorify it. Suffering is terrible and without our faith in God it can crush and destroy us. Jesus didn’t seek the suffering of the cross, but rather prayed to avoid it (Mark 14:36). And Hebrews 12:2 tells us that although Jesus “endured the cross” he also “despised the shame.”

The end we all want is peace and well-being, when there will be no more suffering or tears. We’re able to rejoice in suffering, not because we enjoy it. No, this would be a sign of sickness. We can rejoice in suffering because it demonstrates that the kingdom is ours (Matthew 5:10).

The way of the cross is foolishness to the flesh and the world. As Paul said, “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing . . ..” (1 Corinthians 1:18a). It looks like a good way to miss out on all that this life has to offer. “Lower yourself and accept suffering and then trust God to lift you up? And most of this won’t take place until the final day? That’s crazy!”

  • Just as the disciples – Peter, James and John didn’t understand it and Peter tried to talk Jesus out of it, so we struggle with it today.
  • Just as the powers of this world didn’t understand it when they “crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:8) so they don’t now.

Despite this, the way of the cross is how God brings about his purposes in this world. It is folly to the world, but as the rest of 1 Corinthians 1:18 says, “but to us who are being saved the word of the cross is the power of God.” The wisdom of this world is all about the way of glory – seek and strive for what you can get in this life; lift yourself up to obtain power, honor, wealth and well-being.

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are . . ..” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28). This is God’s “secret and hidden wisdom” (1 Corinthians 2:7). This is how God overthrows evil and establishes his kingdom in this world.

Our suffering as testing

This morning I want to lay out for you a framework for thinking about and processing emotionally and spiritually what’s going on when we suffer; when we experience distress and pain in our lives. This framework is the scriptural teaching on testing and how it works.

I’m using the word “testing,” but this word (πειρασμός/peirasmos) can also be translated as “trials” or “temptation.” And I’m also working with the idea of God’s “discipline” of his children.

Two things up front. Testing usually involves difficult situations of suffering, although we can also be tested by good times and abundance (Deuteronomy 6:10-12). But we’re focused on suffering.

And second, tests are not just about God disciplining us for our failures, although this does happen (1 Corinthians 11:30-32). But God also disciplines and tests us when we’ve done nothing wrong. Job was tested, but not because of his sin (Job 1:1). Jesus was tested, but was sinless (Matthew 4:1-11; the cross). As I said before, just because we’re suffering doesn’t mean that we’ve done something wrong.

Alright, let’s look at –

The parties involved in testing

1. God allows us to be tested. This is made clear in the Lord’s prayer, where Jesus taught us to pray, “lead us not into testing” (Luke 11:4). If God didn’t lead us into testing, there would be no need to ask him not to do this.

And, of course, there are numerous examples of God testing people in Scripture, as we have seen:

  • God tested Job (Job 1-2
  • God tested Abraham when he asked him to sacrifice Isaac, the child of promise (Genesis 22)
  • And God tested the Israelites in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:2)

With regard to Christians in the New Testament:

  • Jesus teaches that each day has “its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34)
  • He said, “in the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33)
  • We will experience “trials of various kinds” (James 1:2)

Even though God allows us to be tested, it’s important to remember that God allows it for our own good. As Hebrews 12:10 says, “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.” God wants us to grow and become more and more like Christ. God is training us in righteousness, just like an elite athlete is always being pushed by her coaches to get better through working out.

It may be hard for us to understand, but despite God’s great love and compassion for us – and he doesn’t enjoy watching us suffer – God is more concerned about our growth than our comfort, security or even our success in life and ministry. God is giving us his tough love. As Hebrews 12:6 says, “The Lord disciplines the one he loves.”

Now, we think we know what’s good for us, and in our view what’s good equals no suffering. But God knows what’s truly good for us and sometimes it does involve undergoing suffering.

Although God allows us to be tested, 2. It’s actually Satan who tests us through his agents.

One of his names in Scripture is “the tester” (Mark 1:13). This is a part of his function in the order of God, to test and then to punish those who sin (Hebrews 2:14). He seeks permission from God to test us. We see this in Job 1-2 and Jesus tells Peter that Satan has asked to sift him and the other disciples like wheat in Luke 22:31. His goal is to cause us to stumble and sin so that he can accuse and punish us (Zechariah 3:1; Revelation 12:10).

So, God wants us to grow, but Satan wants us to be destroyed.

And finally 3. Christians are the ones who undergo testing.

In terms of our humanity two things need to be pointed out. First, there is “the flesh.” This refers to our human weakness. As Jesus said in Gethsemane – “the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38). Now, this is not something alien in us; another nature. The flesh is simply who we are apart from God. It refers to our own human desires, longings and fears.

And when we are put under pressure, the flesh makes us vulnerable to give in and take another way than God’s way. (And this is the real source of our test, not God or Satan. Without our weakness we would never be tempted to sin. This is the point of James 1:13-14).

Second, there is our heart. This is the seat of our choice or will. We are not simply our fears and desires. There is more to us than that. And in a test we choose which way we will go.

And also God doesn’t leave us alone. As Christians the Spirit dwells within us and helps us in times of testing. As Jesus said in his greatest time of trial, “the flesh is weak,” but “the Spirit indeed is willing” (Mark 14:38). The Spirit pushes us forward and gives us strength in our times of weakness.

How testing works

 We are put into difficult situations, most of which involve suffering. Here are some examples:

  • When you don’t have enough to eat, will you still trust and obey God? (Exodus 16; Deuteronomy 8:2)
  • When tragedy strikes, will you curse God? (Job)
  • When an opportunity for sexual immorality occurs, will you take it? (Numbers 25; 1 Corinthians 7:5; 10:8)
  • When God asks you to do something that’s very hard, will you sacrifice for him? (Genesis 22)
  • When you face the loss of comfort, reputation or even your life is threatened because of your commitment to Jesus, will you deny him or compromise to avoid this? (Luke 8:13; 1 Peter 4:12)

These difficult situations provoke an inner struggle within us. The trial we are going through puts pressure on us. Our flesh wants us to take the easy way out when God is calling us to take the hard way of righteousness, self-control and self-sacrifice.

Our flesh doesn’t like difficulty and suffering and Satan appeals to this weakness. But the Spirit helps us. The Spirit leads us to do what’s right. So our flesh pulls one way and the Spirit pulls another. As Paul says in Galatians 5:17 – “what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other . . ..”

Which leads us to the point of testing, we have to choose. God wants to know what’s in our heart (Deuteronomy 8:2). And this becomes evident in our actions (Matthew 7:20). Will we trust and obey God when it’s really hard or will we take the easy way out? Will we stay true to God or will we be unfaithful?

Finally –

Some things to remember in times of testing

Our testing and suffering is part of a bigger cosmic struggle; a spiritual battle that is going on in the world. Ephesians 6:12 says, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

So our faithfulness in times of testing and suffering matters not just for ourselves, but for God’s larger purpose in the redemption of his creation. We want God’s kingdom to advance.

Also, we can have joy even in testing and suffering. I will mention this several times as we talk about suffering, because we need to hear it.

First, we can have joy because God is working in us. As James 1:2, 4 says, “count it all joy.” God is working in us that we may be “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” And second, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:17, “this slight, momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”

We can affirm this, by faith, even when we can see no possible way that what we are going through could bring about any good in our lives or in the lives of others. We will not understand or be able to explain all of our suffering. That all things work together for our good (Romans 8:28) is in God’s hands and that may well be beyond what we will ever see or experience in this life. Our joy is based on our faith that God is nevertheless working and his promises are true.

Finally, although we are told that we will be tested in various ways we can pray to be spared testing. Just as Satan comes before God to seek permission to test us, we can come before God and ask, “lead us not into testing, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13). Jesus is encouraging us to seek to be spared. Why aren’t we praying this all the time!

Our reasoning can be articulated in the terms of the first two petitions of the Lord’s prayer. “God we are weak. Have mercy. If we fail you, we will bring dishonor to your name and your kingdom will be thwarted.” So please spare us.

But ultimately these same two petitions trump the last petition to be spared. Jesus prayed to be spared testing in Gethsemane when he prayed, “remove this cup from me” (Mark 14:36).

  • But he also prayed, “Father, glorify your name” in John 12:28, that is the first petition, “hallowed be your name” (Matthew 6:9).
  • And he prayed “not what I will but what you will” (Mark 14:36) that is the second petition, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

And like with Jesus, when God does not spare us, we need to move forward focusing on bringing honor to God’s name and doing God’s will in our time of testing and suffering.

Sin and human suffering

I shared a few months back on the topic of God and our suffering and I want to pick up on this theme again this morning – this time with a focus on the role of sin in our human suffering.

There are different understandings of where suffering comes from:

  • For instance, some say it’s only in our minds and if we can just get our minds to think straight that will solve the problem (Christian Science).
  • Others say that we suffer because of karma. That is, you get what you deserve in this life, in part, based on what you did in your former life (Hinduism).
  • Others say that the forces of good and evil are equal and locked in a never ending fight which causes us to suffer (Dualism).

But as Christians we confess that –

1. Human suffering and death are rooted in sin

We learn from Scripture that the sin of Adam and Eve brought suffering and death (Genesis 3). Paul tells us that “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin” (Romans 5:12).

Scripture also teaches that we all sin, so we are all a part of the problem (Romans 3:23). And we are also taught that all who sin die, so we all experience the suffering that sin brings (Romans 6:23; James 1:15).

But not only this sin has opened the door for powerful forces of evil to rule this world, so that Satan is now called “the god of this world” in 2 Corinthians 4:4 (John 12:31; 1 John 5:19). And even the non-human creation is disordered and broken due to sin as we read in Romans 8:20-22.

So suffering and death are symptoms of sin’s work and presence in the creation and in our lives.

2. But how sin and suffering are connected in our individual lives is complicated

How many times have you asked, “Why am I going through this suffering?” “What did I do?” We often think, “If I do good I shouldn’t suffer. It’s only when I do bad that I should suffer.” We think life in this world should be fair. But this isn’t how the fallen world works.

It can be true that when you sin, you will suffer immediate and specific consequences for itProverbs 10:4 tells us that “a slack hand causes poverty . . ..” If you don’t work, you will suffer lack. As a general rule, there are consequences. In Acts 5:1-11 God immediately judged Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the Holy Spirit. And in 1 Corinthians 11:29-32 those who abused the Lord’s supper experienced sickness and death as a specific judgment from God for what they did. (See also John 5:14)

But not always!!! Yes, you reap what you sow (Galatians 6:7) but you may not experience the consequences or full consequences of your sin until the final judgment.

So there’s no automatic one-to-one correlation between your sin and your specific suffering in this life. There might be at times, but more often than not, I think, there isn’t.

Scripture talks about this when it asks, “Why do the wicked prosper?” (i.e. Psalm 73:3; Jeremiah 12:1). And we all know of people who are notoriously evil who live the good life and those who are relatively innocent who suffer greatly.

Here are some examples of the latter from Scripture:

  • Joseph suffered due to the sin of his brothers, who sold him into slavery and also due to Potiphar’s wife who falsely accused him of sexual assault, which got him thrown into prison (Genesis 37-40)
  • Job’s suffering was terrible, but God specifically said it was not due to his sin. God described him as “a blameless and upright man” in Job 1:8
  • Jesus said of the man born blind, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3).
  • And of course, Jesus, the sinless one, was murdered on the cross.

Luke 13:1-5 says, “There were some present at that very time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’”

Jesus does not accept that much sin brings much suffering. There’s no one-to-one correlation between our sin and our suffering in this life.

As Ecclesiastes 9:11 teaches us, life isn’t fair. “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.”

Rather, we are all caught in a complex web of sin where our actions affect each other, sometimes in unpredictable ways. So even though our sin might not cause us specific suffering, it can cause others to suffer. For instance the drunk driver who walks away unharmed from an accident, but in the other car several people are killed. And in just the same way the sins of others can cause us to suffer

Think about it we’re all affected by Adam and Eve’s sin. We are born into a world full of sin and suffering. As I said before, Potiphar’s wife sinned, but it was Joseph who went to jail (Genesis 39). And if someone commits adultery, many people’s lives are wounded, not just those guilty of the sin. We have to acknowledge that we have all have sinned in ways that have damaged others and in turn we have suffered because of the sins of others.

3. But there’s hope!

Suffering is real. It’s not an illusion. But it isn’t linked to an endless cycle of karma and reincarnation. Nor is it woven into the fabric of the way things are. And because this is true, God can bring an end to suffering. God is able to overcome it.

In the present, God can use suffering to accomplish his purposes. As Hebrews 12:11 says, “For the moment all discipline (or times of difficulty and suffering) seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

God can transform suffering to bring about his will. For instance, God used Joseph’s suffering. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:4-5). His brothers did evil, but God brought good out of it. In like manner, God used Jesus’ suffering to bring us salvation.

And the salvation that God brings about through Jesus will bring an end to suffering. It’s hard to even know what life would be like without sin and suffering, but we have a portrait painted for us in Isaiah 25:6-8. “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces . . ..”

On that day, we will say, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:54-55, referring back to Isaiah 23, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” Suffering is not the final word. Sin, suffering and death will be no more.

4. Victory in the midst of our current suffering

Suffering will end, but until then we will still suffer in various ways. We live in the time of the “already and not yet.” The kingdom of God has come, but it’s not yet all the way here; redemption has come, but it’s not yet all the way here. We have the reality of salvation – the forgiveness of our sins and new life by the Spirit of God. But not the fullness of it. This comes when Jesus returns, when evil is defeated and when all things are made new, including our bodies.

Until then Christians suffer the same kinds of things everyone else does. Paul says in 1 Corinthian 10:13 that “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone” (NRSV). And Christians will also suffer in ways that are not “common” to all people – persecution for our faith.

We must beware of teachings that diminish the ‘already’ of salvation, for instance that we don’t have God’s power working in and through us now. And we must beware of teachings that exaggerate the ‘already’ of salvation, for instance that we need not suffer now because we are saved. One version of this is the so-called health and wealth gospel. Such things await the fullness of the kingdom.

Even though suffering will continue for now, Christians can experience victory in our suffering. Paul says in Romans 8:35-37, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

Since we know that God can use our suffering for good and we have hope for a future without suffering, we can have joy by the power of the Holy Spirit in the midst of our suffering (James 1:2-4, Matthew 5:11-12, Romans 5:3-5).