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.

The rejection of the Jerusalem scribes. The leaders of old Israel. Mark 3:22-30

Jesus’ new community takes shape

The literary structure of Mark 3:22-30

Last week we saw how Jesus chose 12 apostles as leaders of his new community; a remnant of faithful Israel. Today we see how the leaders of old Israel decisively reject him. There’s a parting of the ways taking place here.

Next week we’ll see how Jesus’ family rejects him, although later they come to believe. So this part of Mark that talks about Jesus’ new community taking shape is also defined by rejection of Jesus by those who are not a part of this new community.

In our story today there’s a very serious exchange between Jesus and the scribes on the topic of casting out demons, the work of the Holy Spirit and what is sometimes called the unpardonable sin.

Mark 3:22-30

22And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.”

Jesus’ casting out of demons is emphasized in the gospel of Mark. Jesus’ authority over them is quite amazing. They’re afraid of him (e.g. 1:24). And he silences them and casts them out with a mere word.

Notice that there’s no debate that Jesus can cast out demons or heal people for that matter. Everyone agrees that he can. The debate now is about how he does this.

Scribes were the educated class of ancient societies, and given that Israel’s culture was governed by the Law of Moses, they were experts in the Law. These particular scribes came from Jerusalem, and so it looks like this is an official delegation sent to investigate Jesus on behalf of the leaders in Jerusalem. (We have already seen that some of the crowd around Jesus has come from Jerusalem – 3:8.)

The scribes come out against Jesus and begin to accuse him and try to discredit him before the crowds. They claimed that the reason Jesus is so amazingly successful at casting out demons is that he’s possessed by a demon, specifically “the prince of demons” – Beelzebul, which is another name for Satan. That’s why he can do what he does. [For this charge see also John 8:48, 52; 10:20] [Beelzebul is made up of two words: “Baal” – the name of a Canaanite god, which means “lord.” And “zebul” which most likely means “dwelling” or “house.”] [In 2 Kings 1:2 ff. Baal the god of Ekron, is called Baal-zebub, which seems to be an intentional change of his name by Israelites to mean – Lord of the flies or the filth.] [Note the house metaphors in this passage and how there appears to be a word pay in Matthew 10:25 between “master of the house” and Beelzebul.]

[The scribes make one charge not two. Mark summarizes their words in v. 30 by simply saying, “he has an unclean spirit.” See also Matthew 12:24; Luke 11:15.]

There’s a lesson here in the scribes’ response: Miracles don’t always convince people. We sometimes think, you know, if God would just do something miraculous people would believe. But miracles can be doubted and they can be interpreted differently. Jesus’ miracles did get peoples’ attention, but in the end they didn’t convince many people. Most of the crowds came to reject him.

Jesus’ first response to the scribes is to point out that their charge is absurd. It’s illogical.

23And he called them to him and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan?”

(The word “called” is the same as the one used when Jesus called the 12 apostles. So this sets up a contrast between these two sets of leaders.)

He called them to him because they were spreading slander about him and he’s confronting them and warning them. (France). This is a good example to us. When someone sins against you go to the person to deal with the issue. This is what Jesus teaches in Matthew 18:15. Don’t do what the scribes do – go and talk to everyone else. Go to the person or persons face to face.

It says that he spoke to them in parables. The word parable (Hebrew – Masal) has a broad meaning. We usually think of a story parable but it also includes things like proverbs, metaphors or riddles like we have in our passage. A parable is anything that compares two things to make a point.

That their charge is absurd is pointed out by his question: How can Satan cast our Satan The demons that Jesus defeats are Satan’s agents who are doing his will. It really would be like casting himself out! Satan wants to oppress, possess and destroy people. Why would he want to give freedom and release from himself? This doesn’t make sense.

He gives two illustrations –

24If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.

The comparison to a kingdom is apt because Satan is called here a “prince.” Jesus also uses the metaphor of a house, or since Satan is a prince, we could say a royal household. (This last example is likely a play on words with the name Beelzebul). And the point is, if there’s a civil war going on or if a household is fighting – these entities will fall apart.

He then applies this to Satan –

26And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end.

If Satan is in revolt against himself things really are falling apart. But that’s not the case. That Satan’s kingdom has not collapsed refutes their charge (Stein). This is shown by how many demons Jesus is casting out. Satan is alive and well.

Jesus gives us the correct assessment of what’s going on when he casts out demons in verse –

27But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house.

(Jesus continues with a house metaphor.) In this parable:

  • The strong man is Satan
  • The house is world. As Jesus says in John 12:31 Satan is “the ruler of this world.”
  • His goods are the people who are under his control – specifically here the demon possession.
  • To plunder is to set people free by casting out demons.
  • To bind is to overpower Satan so that he can do nothing about it. (There is no necessary reference to a one-time event when this happened. Jesus is just more powerful. And whenever he engages Satan or his representatives he wins.)

Jesus is this stronger one (Luke 11:22) who can enter Satan’s domain and set his captives free (Luke 13:16). All Satan and his demons can do is submit to Jesus. So this is what’s really going on. Jesus is assaulting Satan’s kingdom. He has come to establish the kingdom of God and he is doing so by the power of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:28: Luke 11:20), as our next verse will make clear.

Jesus’ other response to the scribes is that their charge is unforgiveable blasphemy.

28Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter . . .

The word “truly” is literally “amen” which means “confirmed” or “verified.” This way of talking is unique to Jesus. It’s similar to the Old Testament, “thus says the Lord.” And he uses it to say something really important.

Jesus is pretty broad here – “all sins” can be forgiven, and “whatever blasphemies.” Blasphemy means to slander, defame or speak against someone, in this case God. And blasphemy against God is a capital offense (Leviticus 24:13-16). But notice what Jesus says. All sins and blasphemies can be forgiven (with one exception, as we’ll see). There’s good news in this statement. What are the worst sins you can think of? What are the worst sins you have committed? Jesus tells us these can be forgiven. This speaks to the depths of God’s mercy and grace toward us.

There’s only one exception to Jesus’ statement –

. . . 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”

(See also on blasphemy of the Spirit – Luke 12:10; Matthew 12:32)

The scribes were not just slandering Jesus, which is forgivable (Matthew 12:32). They’re slandering, blaspheming or speaking against (Matthew 12:32) the Holy Spirit of God — since it’s the Spirit that empowers Jesus to do what he does. Notice the double emphasis – “never has forgiveness;” and “is guilty of an eternal sin.” The point is clear. It won’t be forgiven.

 How does one commit this sin? People sometimes fret or are afraid that they have done this or will do this. Well, Mark makes it clear –

30for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

 You commit this sin if you say that what the Holy Spirit did through Jesus – casting out demons, miracles, healings – is the work of a demonic spirit.

Now the Spirit works through others, but never more powerfully and clearly than through Jesus. And I believe that Mark is showing us that this sin has to do specifically with the work of the Spirit through Jesus. As he says, they said that Jesus has an unclean spirit.

And this sin is committed by those who know better, in this case the scribes. It’s not made by someone who doesn’t really understand things. It’s not a stray thought that comes into your mind. It’s a position you that you take about the Spirit’s work through Jesus – that it’s of Satan.

To say this is to say that black is white and white is black. It’s like Isaiah 5:20 says, “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness.”

We see here that the honor of the Spirit, who is gentle, quiet and pure is zealously guarded by God.

Let me end by emphasizing the main point. Jesus has complete power and authority over Satan and his demons. He is the stronger one who overpowers Satan and there is nothing Satan or his demons can do about it.

Now, you don’t have to be demon possessed to need Jesus’ deliverance. Satan is the ruler of this world and we all have been or need to be set free to one degree or another. So in whatever way you need to be saved – Jesus can do it. Even Christians can give him a foothold in our lives when we walk in sin. Look to him! He will break you out of the strongman’s house. He will set you free! And he will receive you into his kingdom, the kingdom of God.