Suffering and persecution.

Trinity 4, 2023
+In the Name of Jesus+
Five-hundred years ago, on July 1, 1523, the first two martyrs of the Lutheran Reformation were burned at the stake in Brussels. They were the Augustinian monks Jan van Essen and Hendrik Vos. Witnesses report that they died singing together the Te Deum.   What suffering they must have felt.
I wish I could count the times I have heard someone say: “A loving God would not allow anyone to suffer.”   Is this true?   Is suffering indeed then, foreign to the Christian?   If we suffer, does that indicate that God no longer loves us?    Paul writes, “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit… since we share in His suffering in order that we may also share in His glory.”   Given these words of St. Paul, we must conclude that suffering is not only not foreign to the life of the Christian, but suffering is promised the Christian as a share in Christ’s suffering.   Suffering is really Gospel or good news to the Christian.  But, let’s consider an age old question:
Is suffering foreign to the Christian?
I   The suffering of Jesus.
  1. The Suffering of the righteous.
Our Lord suffered on the Cross for almost six hours.     For several hours more before the crucifixion He had undergone the most excruciating and exhausting bodily pain.    The loss of sleep, the ordeal of the mock trials, the inhuman scourging, the crown of thorns, the oppressive load of the Cross, all this He endured before He finally reached the crest of Calvary, the “place of the skull.”     Then came the nails and the hammer blows.     Now He was “lifted up,” as He had said He would be.
It is impossible to tell of the agony of the Son of God on the Cross.    The weight of the body pulling against the tendons and muscles of the hands and feet, held fast by the unyielding spikes, caused such agony as can more readily be imagined than described.    Nevertheless, throughout it all His thoughts were of others.    But now for the first time the demands of His own bruised and fever- ridden body assert themselves.     His unfathomable torment and suffering is simply expressed: “I thirst.” That brief, simple word is expressive of the profoundest suffering of our Lord on the physical level.
But why did He, the Son of God and Son of Man, the altogether Righteous One, thus suffer?    If God is a loving God, should not the only purely righteous Person that ever walked the face of the earth be exempt from suffering?    Is this not unloving of God?    Some will answer that He suffered because of wicked men.
Truly, He did suffer because of wicked men.    But that is not the whole answer.  He suffered not only because of wicked men, but for wicked men.    Therein lies the unique glory of the suffering of the holy Christ.    According to the eternal counsel of God, indeed, according to the greatest Love of God, this saving of His people would involve suffering as the penalty of man’s sin which He willingly assumed.
  • Jesus suffered because of our greed and lack of contentment.
  • Jesus suffered because of our lust and wandering heart.
  • Jesus suffered because of our envy and hatred.
  • Jesus suffered because of our moral cowardice in which we try to cover our tracks with more lies and half-truths. We deserve the worst degree of hell as surely as those who surrounded Jesus on that Day.
Why then did the Righteous One on the Cross suffer?    Not only because of men, but also in behalf of men.     It was the offering up of the spotless life of the Son of God in payment for the sin of the world.     Only Christ, the Son of God, could, and did, suffer in that way.       Only His suffering has such redemptive power before the throne of God.   Suffering reveals the true love of God.   Thank God there was such an One who was able and willing to make that tremendous sacrifice for us.
It is against the background of the suffering love of Jesus Christ expressed, and compressed, in that simple, profound utterance “I thirst,” that the righteous find the answer.    Only those who believe in Jesus as their Savior and have found cleansing for their sin in His redeeming love will understand.
First of all, the suffering of the righteous believer is not a punishment of God for his sins.     These have all been atoned for and removed by the sacrifice of the Savior.     Luther tells of a dream in which the devil came to him with a long list of his sins, suggesting that God would surely punish him in hell for his transgressions.    Momentarily shaken, Luther remembered the suffering of the Savior for his sins and replied to the devil: “Take your list, and write across it: ‘The blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanseth us from all sin.”‘     Since you are Christ’s by faith, your conscience need not torment you in the hours of sickness and suffering as if God were punishing you.       Even in pain we can be at peace with God.
Therefore, not divine punishment, but divine purpose is behind the suffering of the righteous.     When Christ suffered, He indeed took upon Himself your punishment.     But He did not abolish suffering.     He removed from suffering its divine punishment, but not its divine purpose.     And that purpose of God, even though we cannot always see it in its true dimensions, is good.
As St. Paul writes, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, those whom He called according to His plan.”     The directing wisdom in suffering is God’s unfailing wisdom; the motive behind our suffering is God’s limitless grace.    Therefore Christian faith rests on this unshakable promise of God: “All things work together for good to them that love God.”
In contrast, to the suffering which God sends to us, it is a false and vicious premise which postulates that men have a sovereign right only to a soft and easy living.    Rather, again as St. Paul writes, “We must through much tribulation enter into the Kingdom of God.”     But the suffering of Christ on the Cross for our sin shows us such love of God that we now know our crosses have a vital place and purpose in His all-wise and merciful dealings with His children.
Given all this, we need to drop Paul’s words of verse 18 squarely into the lap of our daily life.    Hear them again, “I consider our present suffering to be unimportant when I compare them with the glory soon to be revealed to us.”    Are we really all that much different than the people who believe a loving God would not allow people to suffer?     What truly takes place in our hearts and minds when things do not go the way of our sinful flesh?      Do we always say, “Thank you Lord Jesus for allowing me to suffer as your holy child?”   Or is there whisper of curses under our breath for any inconvenience?    Do we pray for those who misuse us, or do we yell at them on the phone and threaten to take them to court?
Paul tells us in Philippians, “For it is God’s gift to you, not only to believe in Christ but also to suffer on His behalf.”     Again, suffering is not only not foreign to the Christian, it is a special gift from a loving God.   However, our flesh is at war against this.   Never will it view suffering as a gift from God.
Yet, our flesh so often wins out in the view of the importance and place of suffering in our lives.    For this we deserve hell, not for a day or two, not for 20 years, but for eternity.   It is described in the Bible as a place where the fire is not quenched and the worm does not die.     Is not repentance once again in order?
However, instead of condemning us to hell for our view of suffering, God rather lovingly enjoins us to compare it to the glory soon to be reveled to us.   That is nothing less than the proclamation of forgiveness.
  • This means that God views you as His child bound for heaven with Jesus, rather than those fit for hell.
  • This means that God has no intention of making you suffer eternally in hell for your sins since Jesus has suffered fully for each of them.
  • This means that all the false accusations against you given by Satan, mean absolutely nothing.
  • It means that we can say with St. Paul, “We, who have the Spirit as our first taste of heaven, groan inwardly as we look forward to being adopted as His children, when our body will be set free.”
  • Your Lord has set His table for you once again this morning; a table of the richest food and drink in which He forgives your sins. Go in peace rejoicing in the suffering your Savior places in your life, knowing that you are covered in the blood once shed.
Soli Deo Gloria