Suffering For ChristErwin W. Lutzer | July 26, 2015
Selected highlights from this sermon
Paul was selected to suffer for Christ. And as we look around the globe today, our Christian brothers and sisters face persecution in many countries. We need to remember that we, like Paul, are called to suffer too. The good news is that God is glorified when we suffer for Him and boast in His comfort during trials.
My topic today is Suffering for Christ – The Legacy of A Converted Man. The reason I am preaching this message is because last week I preached from Acts 9 – Paul’s conversion, and I was very much struck with this verse that God gave to Ananias when he was asked to go visit the Apostle Paul who had just been converted. And Ananias was afraid and reasonably so, and God said, “No, he’s a chosen instrument for me to carry My name before Gentiles and kings and children of Israel, for I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” That caught my attention.
There are two kinds of suffering. There is suffering that comes to us because of the fallenness of this world – sickness, heartache, broken relationships or poverty. But then there’s another kind of suffering that comes because we bear the name of Jesus. And that’s going to be the primary focus of my message today. And you must listen to this message.
And you know, there are people today who, when we speak about the persecuted church, aren’t interested. I was speaking to someone who is interested in helping churches [to] pray for the persecuted church, and he said, “Do you know what we’ve discovered among pastors? People don’t want an emphasis on the persecuted church,” he said, “for two reasons. First of all, it’s kind of a downer, and we come to church because we want to leave positive and happy, and who wants to hear about persecution? The second reason is because people are saying to themselves, ‘Well, because it’s not about me, and it doesn’t really concern me, I’m disinterested.’” I hope and pray that that is not true of The Moody Church, though it could be true of some of us. What an indictment of the church today. All that matters is me!
Now what I’d like to do today and I’ll to explain to you why I’m preaching this message. I have a friend who is well connected to other pastors and places, and he was telling us that in England many Christians are being taken to court and there’s a friend of his who is an attorney who spends his time defending Christians. Christians are being taken to court for wearing a necklace with a cross. They are being taken to court because they are standing their ground on moral issues. Perhaps they don’t want their child to be indoctrinated with certain agendas in the schools, and so they are under persecution. And this man said that the Christians are not enduring it very well, and the reason that they aren’t is because they do not have a robust biblical worldview regarding persecution. And when he said that, that caught my attention because you and I discover as our own freedoms are being taken away and as laws are beginning to be imposed upon us regarding these issues, we will soon understand where they are at, and the question is, “Will we do any better?”
Now, I’m preaching this message to prepare you and to prepare me for the days ahead. You may not need it today, though there are some of you who are going to need it today. As a matter of fact, I’m going to speak about different kinds of suffering so I will include you in this message, but just know that this is a message that will become increasingly important in the United States. And then speaking of the persecuted church, when we stop to think of it, how terrible it is if we would leave them out.
You know, the author of the book of Hebrews (You know that we’re not absolutely sure who wrote the book of Hebrews) said this. He said, “Remember those who are in prison as being in prison with them.” All of us know that we’ve been praying for Pastor Saeed, who is a pastor who is imprisoned in Iran, at least at the time that this message is being preached. I think that he still a prisoner there. But you know, he represents hundreds of other people. In fact, right there in Iran there are two unnamed pastors, and they had long prison sentences, and they came to the end of their sentence and now they have been told that they have to stay in prison for another five years. Can you imagine their discouragement?
I was going to read some statistics to you today, and just very briefly. This could be a separate message but according to the U.S. Department of State, in more than 60 countries Christians face persecution from their governments or from their neighbors, etc. One of the worst countries is North Korea, where, if you have a Bible and it is found, you could be executed. The same thing in positions in different parts of China! Of the 41 of the 50 worst nations for persecution, these are nations persecuted because they are nations that are Islamic. And Christians face persecution in other countries as well. I don’t have time to go into detail but to simply remind you of the fact that the church of Jesus Christ is a suffering church.
Now let me tell you what we’re going to do in this message. I’m going to begin by talking about Paul’s suffering, but then as we progress, when we get to the end, I’m going to lay out some propositions, some foundational truths for a biblical view of persecution and suffering because that’s where we need to go. And we need to understand it from the biblical point of view when our day comes.
Now Paul lays out all of the persecutions that he has been through in 2 Corinthians 11, and I’m going to summarize for you chapters 10 and 11 in really just a very few moments. What’s going on there in the text? Paul is defending his apostleship against false teachers. False teachers have come into the church in Corinth and they are destroying Paul’s ministry. And they are saying that he’s not a true apostle and they say, “What you really should do is to listen to us because we’re the ones that have the truth.”
Now let me give you three or four criticisms that these false apostles had for the Apostle Paul. For example, one thing they said was, “You know, he writes great letters. He’s well educated and he can write, but regarding his physical presence if he were here he’d be like a wimp. You know, he doesn’t have much stature among us.” Paul notices that in 2 Corinthians 10:10: “For they say (speaking of the false prophets), ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak and his speech of no account.’” Some people translate that “speech that is contemptible.”
You see, the false prophets delighted in rhetoric. They loved to speak, and they are saying, “We are better speakers than Paul is.” Not only that, you read the next chapter and you discover that they criticized him because of the Jesus whom he proclaimed. They proclaimed a more tolerant Jesus that was very welcome in the Corinthian church with all of its struggles with immorality. And so they were upset with Paul because, you know, “You proclaim Jesus, and we proclaim Jesus, too.” Paul opens chapter 11 and says, “I am fearful that you are being moved away to another Jesus,” and oh, there are plenty of Jesuses. Years ago I preached a message on how to identify false prophets. There are all kinds of Jesuses being proclaimed to us that are not the Jesus of the New Testament.
And then another criticism, if you can believe it, is that Paul didn’t charge for his ministry. He was a tent worker, and he made his money along the side, and when he didn’t have enough money he went to some other churches. He took nothing from the Corinthians lest somebody would say he was in it for the money. And the false prophets said, “You know what! In light of the fact that he doesn’t charge, he must not have anything very important to say. We charge money because we really do have the truth.” So that’s the persecution that Paul took from them.
Now I have to skip huge bodies of text here and get to 2 Corinthians 11:19. He says, “For you gladly bear with fools.” By the way, Paul here uses both sarcasm and meekness all the way through. When you read this you need to keep that in mind. He is saying, “For you bear it (verse 20) if someone makes slaves of you, devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face. To my shame, I’m too weak for that.” Paul says, “I can’t compete with these false apostles because they have ways of raising money, they hold you in contempt really, but they strike you in the face, and they take advantage of you.”
When I was in Dallas, Texas, as a student there, we went to a tent meeting with 7,000 people to hear a very famous false prophet who is now dead. In fact, several offerings were taken. We noticed that people were putting their wristwatches into the offering baskets, and he had the nerve to say, “We are really fleecing the Lord’s sheep here this afternoon.”
Now many people get involved with false prophets, and our televisions are filled with them. Of course, not everybody on TV is a false prophet, but all of the “Send me the seed money; send it to me and God will bless you. Don’t give it to your church. What you need to do if you want a real seed that is going to gain this wonderful harvest is send it to me.” You know the lingo. When you get involved with them you’ll discover that you can fleece sheep many times, but you can skin them only once. And once you’ve had that experience you understand that indeed they are false prophets.
So Paul is persecuted by them. And then what he does at the end of the chapter, just so that you understand the context, is the Apostle Paul begins to list all of the trials that he went through. Why? He’s saying, “I can’t compete with these false prophets. You know, they do miracles. Now they do them in the power of Satan,” Paul says there in verse 14, “and I can’t compete with the false prophets.”
We here at The Moody Church don’t have little flasks of water from the Jordan River that we give to people that are going to provide healing. We don’t have handkerchiefs that are blessed that will rid you of any disease that you have. We can’t compete with all the false prophets out there. Now, we do have the Gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation, (applause) but what Paul is saying in this text is, “You know, there’s something that I can do that you guys can’t. I can suffer well.” And that’s why he lists all of his sufferings.
I’m going to pick it up now in about verse 23. “Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one — I am talking like a madman — with far greater labors, (Paul is saying, “You know, if I have to debate you I just want you to know that I’ve got a better agenda, and a better resume than you. Look at what I’ve been through.”), far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. (Paul, are you serious? In the Law it said that you could beat somebody 40 times, but no more lest he die, and so the Jews always beat someone 39 times – one less than the 40. Are you saying that you went through beatings like this five times? Once would be plenty for me. And people today undoubtedly would write a book about it if they were beaten 40 lashes less one.) Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. (We have to explain to the younger generation that actually means that he had rocks thrown at him.) (laughter) Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak?” I’m going to emphasize that in a moment.
So Paul says, “I went through persecution from the false prophets, from the Jews, the Gentiles.” In Lystra he was stoned, for example, as was mentioned, and they dragged him out of the city, apparently thinking that he was dead. He went through all of those experiences, suffering from the churches. In other words, even though he was going through all of this, the burden and the weight of the churches was upon him. He was constantly thinking of others, and that was his experience as he was going through all of these sufferings. By the way, it’s very hard to identify where exactly all of them happened, but as you know, Paul had three missionary journeys, and some were more tolerable than others, but he went through his share of difficulties.
So those are the things that the Apostle Paul went through, but now what I want to do is to give you three foundational principles for what we could call a theology of suffering. We have to see this in perspective.
Let me begin by saying that I’m not the best person to preach this message because I really have never suffered for Jesus. But what qualifies me to preach on this is to simply quote the Scripture so that you and I begin to think differently about suffering and we begin to see the honor that it is to suffer for Jesus Christ. That’s where this is going.
In America here we have the narrative in Evangelical circles that if we just were a better church, if we were more faithful to the Lord, we would have no suffering at all. Christianity would largely be in charge here in the United States, and all of these laws that are being formed against us wouldn’t happen, and we’d have smooth sailing. Well, some of that responsibility rests with the church, but not all of it.
You’ve perhaps heard me say that it would be wrong for us to say, “Now, if Jesus were a better preacher, Jerusalem would have repented and received Him.” There are some things that must come to pass. Many years ago – about 25 or so – I preached an entire sermon on the little word must. Jesus said, “These things must happen.” So what I want us to do is to understand now God’s purpose in suffering, and to see the larger picture. And by the way, we’ll include your physical suffering in this as well.
Number one (here we are), we are called to suffer. What I’m going to do today is to read passages of Scripture, one after another because we need to be reminded of the biblical view of suffering so that when it happens we are ready mentally and spiritually for it.
For example, in John 15, and I’m beginning now at verse 18, Jesus is speaking: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.”
You know what Jesus is saying here. He’s saying, “Who do you think you are? Are you better than I am? Here I was. I mean I was healing people. I was feeding large multitudes. I will stilling storms. And they hated Me and ultimately nailed Me to a cross. And you are My follower, and you think that the world is going to love you? Of course not! You are not greater than I am. A servant is not greater than his master. Expect it!”
Philippians 1:29 (I won’t turn to it because I happen to know it by memory.) but it says this: “To you it has been given on behalf of Christ not only to believe on Him (Bonheoffer said that we like the first part of that verse.) but also to suffer.” Suffering is part of our responsibility as believers. It is a privilege, as we shall see in a moment, that God gives to His followers, so we believe on Him and we suffer with Him. In fact, there are special rewards, as we shall see in a moment, if we suffer well with Jesus.
Now, the other day I was in a cab, and the driver happened to recognize me. That does not happen very, very often, but this time it did. And he quoted this verse. How many times do you have a ride in a cab, and you are quoting verses back and forth? I don’t know that that’s ever happened.
“Indeed all those who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” says the Apostle Paul, “while evil people and imposters will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.” Do you think our present situation here in the United States has kind of gotten off guard, and we say, “Boy, I didn’t know that things were going to be that bad by now?” God predicted it, and the Apostle Paul says that [it happens] to all who live godly lives. And if you and I have not been persecuted in any way, could it be that we’re not living a godly life and we are hiding our light under a bushel?
Let’s continue on, and many of you know 1 Peter 4. I know one of the verses, but I don’t know the verse that follows it, and so I’m going to read it. 1 Peter 4:12: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you (We’re going to be tested in ways we’ve never been tested before, but don’t say, “Oh, how could this possibly happen to us because we are the people of God.” What he’s saying is, “Don’t be surprised. It is given to you to test you.) as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”
Expect it. Anticipate it. Live for Christ so that it will actually happen to you. That’s the biblical position. That is our calling. He not only called the Apostle Paul. He calls us as well.
Look at the example of the Early Church. There they are, and they are thrown into prison and they are beaten and everything. You know what really amazes me is that Paul is in prison when he writes the book of Philippians, for example. Never does he ask the people to pray that he’ll get out of prison.
Now I think that we should pray that people get out of prison. I think that we should as much as possible enter into the prisons, just like it says in the book of Hebrews that we should do, but at the end of the day that’s not the biggest issue. The biggest issue that the Early Church faced was “make us bold and faithful in the face of persecution.” That’s what they were praying for.
And after they were let go, you remember they went to their company and they prayed, and they did not ask that the persecution stop. They asked for boldness, and when they were finished praying, the place that they were in was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. And they were ready for some more persecution. So that’s the way the Early Church went.
You know, and you probably know this, that the word witness in the Bible is actually the word martyr. So when Jesus says, “You shall be my witnesses,” what He was saying was, “You shall be My martyrs.” Now, you see, what happened is so often when people believed on Christ, they were martyred, and that’s the word that you actually have in the New Testament today. “You shall be My martyrs,” says Jesus.
You know, in Hebrews 12 after that long list of persecutions, remember it says: “And others were tortured, but they did not accept deliverance, believing in a better resurrection. Others were stoned and imprisoned. They walked about in sheep skins, in goat skins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented, men and women of whom the world was not worthy.” That’s Hebrews 11. And then you get to chapter 12 and it says, “Since we are surrounded with so great a cloud of witnesses (We could say, “Since we are surrounded with such a great cloud of martyrs), let us lay aside every weight and the sin which does so easily beset us, and run faithfully the race that is set before us.”
So what we have is the fact that in the Early Church persecution was expected. And when you get to the end of time, you read in the book of Revelation – chapters 12 and 13 – that all of the persecution is ratcheted up because Antichrist now has at his disposal all of the weaponry, all of the means of torture that have ever been invented, and he will inflict it upon people. All who dwell upon the earth shall worship him except those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life from before the foundation of the world. And the text tells us that those kinds of people will be beheaded, just like ISIS is beheading people today.
My fellow brothers and sisters, the reason I’m so stirred about this is because I saw, I think, for the first time with clarity the fact that persecution is our calling. Let’s respond with boldness and grace.
Let me give you a second important principle in developing a theology of persecution. Suffering strategically positions us (I’m going to take this slowly) for blessing (Yes indeed! You heard me correctly!) and for the glory of God. This morning I was signing a book for a friend whose wife went home to heaven, and I used 2 Corinthians 1. I didn’t know that this verse was there or had forgotten. Paul says, “If I am afflicted it’s for your good.”
And in Ephesians 3… Shall we take the time to just look at it very briefly? The Apostle Paul makes the amazing statement. He says, “God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. (Now notice this verse.) So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.”
Paul is saying, “I am being afflicted for your good.” You and I have no idea all the things that God is doing through the persecutions that are happening in the world. Paul himself was greatly impacted by the persecution of Stephen and his stoning. In fact, they took Stephen’s garments and they gave them to Paul for safekeeping, and he watched. And later on in his testimonies he referred to that. You have no idea and I have no idea what God may be doing through persecution.
And then in 1 Peter 4 (I read it a moment ago) it tells us about the fact that as a result of our faithfulness God is going to bless us. This is so important. I have to reread one of the verses. “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” You are strategically positioned for special blessing. That’s why Jesus said, “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and say all manner of evil falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven.” That’s your calling.
I know that it is more easily said than done, but there’s one other verse that I must refer to because I just can’t get over this. In the book of Hebrews it says this: “Recall the former days when after you were enlightened you endured the hard struggle of suffering, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, sometimes being partners with those who are so treated, for you had compassion for those in prison. You joyfully (Can you believe this? It’s in the Bible. I’ll read the rest.) accepted the plundering of your property since you know that you yourselves have a better possession and an abiding one.”
Paul, are you serious that there are Christians who joyfully accepted having their property plundered because these Christians knew they had a home in heaven that was a lot better than their home here on earth? (applause)
Let me give you one other principle. We are called to suffer. Suffering strategically positions us for God’s blessing. I’m speaking to you parents now because you’re going to have make decisions regarding school systems. I’m speaking to those of you who are going through trials of many different kinds. I wanted to include Paul’s own thorn in the flesh, which is the next chapter. That story is in chapter 12, but let me tell you this.
This is number three now. We are to boast in God’s comfort in the midst of our sufferings. Now your Bibles are open one more time most assuredly to 2 Corinthians 11 and 12. Paul is referring here to himself in contrast to the false apostles. They are always speaking about their strength. Paul says, “I want to talk to you about my weaknesses. I want to talk to you about my hardships.”
Have you ever been in a discussion with somebody and they’re talking about some great thing they did and you know right well you did something bigger than they did, and you can hardly wait until they’re finished (laughter) because you want to tell them what you did? Paul says, “Don’t do that. Think of some weakness. If you are talking to Peter, don’t get excited about Peter speaking about the Day of Pentecost and that three thousand people were converted. Oh that’s wonderful, but that’s not what I want to hear about, Peter. I want to ask him, “Peter, you know when you denied Jesus under pressure, what were those three days like? And what sorrow did you go through? And how did Jesus actually restore you? And what did it feel like when Jesus restored you and recommissioned you? That’s what I’d like to know about. I want to know about your weakness.
Look at what Paul says. He says, “If I must boast (verse 30), I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” In chapter 12 he’s talking about the thorn in the flesh, which has been given to him by God, and God would not take it away because God said now in verse 9: “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, (Can you believe this? But it’s in the Bible. I’ll keep reading.) I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships (we could say being hauled into court because of his convictions) (I’m at peace with all the), persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, (at that moment and not two weeks later) then I am strong (because I have nothing but God to depend on – this is so desperate). (applause)
I’d like to just boast about my weakness. Don’t tell me about all the successes you’ve had, though it’s okay under certain circumstances to do that, but tell me how God ministered to you during those days of deep depression. Tell me how He comforted you when you have a wayward child that has not yet come home. Tell me how He has helped you when you have a thorn in the flesh, or when you have a migraine headache. How does God help you during those moments and show His comfort? How does God help you when the school system says that your child must take a certain course and you don’t want your child to take it, and you’re praying to God for wisdom?
I don’t want to hear simply about all of the things that have happened, and that’s why I’ve been so interested in Nazi Germany, not just because of the history but because I happen to know that there are many stories of faithful families who saw God and were faithful to the Gospel. Oftentimes it cost them their lives, but they were faithful to the Gospel in the midst of persecution. I want to know about God’s presence when people are going through a hard time. Tell me about your weaknesses. Tell me how God restored you and brought you back.
By the way, in Nazi Germany, one man said, “The time has come in Germany when the Gospel can no longer simply be proclaimed in words. It must be proclaimed in suffering.” And the time may come to America when the Gospel can’t just go out in words. It has to go out in suffering.
Now, Paul talking about weakness? Oh, I can’t believe this but again, it’s in the Word. Do you believe this Word, by the way? Do you bring the Word to church on your cell phone at least? (applause) Ah yes, I’m sure God has approved of cell phones! (laughter)
I’m in chapter 13. He says: “You’re seeking proof that Christ is speaking through me.” It is about in verse 2 or 3 or 4. Verse 4: “For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God.” Jesus is crucified in weakness. Look at Him there on the cross, allowing them to nail Him there. He is crucified in weakness, but it was in weakness that you and I were redeemed.
Listen! Jesus did His greatest work, not with the miracles. I mean, He fed the multitudes, but they were hungry the next day. He helped people get well, and they still had to die. Even Lazarus had to die. I was explaining to some folks the other day, how would you frighten Lazarus? “Lazarus, I’m going to kill you.” “No big deal. I’ve been there. I’ve done that.” (laughter) Right?
That wasn’t the way Jesus changed the world. Jesus changed the world by hanging on the cross, and by redeeming us. That’s how He changed the world. (applause) And when you and I see ISIS kill Christians and murder them, and crucify them, as ISIS frequently does, would you and I remember that those believers are following a crucified Christ who was crucified in weakness? And Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”
By the way, if you’ve never believed on Jesus, that gift that He gives you as a result of dying in our place is a free gift. If the Holy Spirit has spoken to you, you can even receive it by faith now if God grants you the faith to believe. But having done that, we’re supposed to carry our cross. Right?
There is a story about a man who had a dream, and in his dream his cross he was carrying was so heavy. He thought, “If only I could make it lighter,” and he noticed a woodsman, and he said, “Would you cut off part of this cross?” So the woodsman did it, and the man went along and was so happy because he had a lighter cross. And then he came to a chasm where two mountains were separated, and he wanted to use the cross as a bridge, but you’ve already guessed it. He was short the amount that had been cut off, and he could not continue his journey.
Today from my heart to yours, the lighter our cross, the weaker our witness! It is when we bear a cross for Christ and we bear it with joy, that we honor God. We bless ourselves in the sense of being rewarded, and we represent Jesus well in the midst of a nation that has lost its way.
Father, I want to thank You so much for the martyrs. I want to thank You, Father, for Pastor Saaed, representing hundreds of people all throughout the Middle East, Christians in prison today. Thank You for their steadfastness. Thank You for the way in which they rebuke us in all of our silly materialism. And we pray today, Lord, make us strong for Your glory. May we suffer well like Paul did to authenticate our faith. For every issue in people’s lives today, show Your glory, I pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.