Running with the footmen (Jeremiah 12:5)

The prophet Jeremiah was writing to a people who were disobedient to the Lord and were heading toward judgment. He was given the daunting task of declaring the coming judgment to the nation of Judah with full knowledge that his words would not be heeded. Jeremiah had been told by the LORD that he was to preach to Judah even though they would never listen. But the language of the Scripture in Jeremiah’s prophecy evokes powerful images.

“If you have run with footmen and they have tired you out,
Then how can you compete with horses?
If you fall down in a land of peace,
How will you do in the thicket of the Jordan?” – Jeremiah 12:5

Judah had been living in luxury and peace (“running with the footmen”) and had steadily decayed in their service to the LORD and in their giving glory to the LORD among the nations. Instead of holiness, Judah was marked by wickedness and idolatry, and the halcyon days of running with the footmen were about to be replaced by competing with horses.

WE HAVE BEEN RUNNING WITH FOOTMEN

As I read these words of Jeremiah, I can’t help but think that, in different a sense, the American church has been “running with the footmen” for a long time. By “running with the footmen,” I mean that the American church has had a long season of great material wealth, of protection from the government, and of tolerance from the prevailing society. The church militant in America has had decades of a favorable climate for declaring the gospel to the nations with very few hindrances. The American church has had a long comfortable period of peace and material prosperity. That is what I mean by “running with the footmen.” And yet, despite the wealth to fund far-reaching gospel ventures and the freedom to pursue our faith out in the open, the church has made scant progress in the gospel. While there have been some focused efforts to move the message of the gospel forward, there has also been the squandering of immense amounts of money, time, and focus on building opulent church campuses that serve only the people in the church. In my opinion, the excesses have far outnumbered the useful projects, the church in America has become inwardly focused through pampering, and the cause of the gospel has languished. We have been running with the footmen, and we have wearied ourselves in the most favorable of circumstances.

COMPETING WITH HORSES AND ENTERING THE THICKET OF THE JORDAN

But something else has been occurring as the church has been entertaining ourselves and improving our “church experience.” The material wealth of the church has slowly eroded, religious protection from the government has all but disappeared and has been replaced with restrictions, and the attitude of the American culture has gradually turned hostile to Christianity. I sense that the pleasant days of leisurely “running with the footmen” are fast coming to a close (if they have not already) and that we are beginning a time of “competing with horses.” To quote Jeremiah, we are entering “the thicket of the Jordan,” and in that place the obstacles to the gospel will be many and further progress will be hard-won.

How, then, are we who wage war (2 Cor. 10:3-5) under the banner of Jesus to respond to this increasingly hostile culture? Here are some thoughts that I employ that help me to persevere:

  • Be careful and thoughtful with my doctrine so that I am not blown here and there by every wind of doctrine (Ephesians 4:14) and thus end up in apostasy.
  • Be more intentionally encouraging to other believers since the sources of discouragement will continue to grow in number and in magnitude (Ephesians 4:29).
  • With a sense of urgency, be more vocal with my evangelistic efforts (2 Cor. 5:11a).
  • Strive to be more useful and productive in whatever area of Kingdom activity or ministry the Lord has given us (Colossians 3:23; Romans 12:6-8).
  • Expect and embrace persecution from the world. Bear it with joy and continue to proclaim Christ in the midst of persecution (Matt. 5:10-12, 44; Romans 12:14).
  • Stand firm against the schemes of the devil (2 Cor. 2:11; Ephesians 6:11ff).
  • Close ranks within the local church, and make sure that I am doing the “one anothers” for my fellow church members. These are the people the Lord has called me to encourage toward heaven.

As we must more and more compete with horses and run through thickets, let’s lean into the Lord and be steadfast (1 Cor. 15:58).

SDG                 rmb                 10/4/2021                   #438

Maintain your zeal all the way to the end

I have been reading through J. C. Ryle’s book Practical Religion and have recently finished the chapter on “Zeal.” In his usual direct style, Ryle convincingly presents the case that the only way to run the Christian race is to run with effortful zeal. He presents example after example, both biblical and historical, that demonstrate that those who make a difference for Christ live with an abandoned zeal for the things of Christ. Theirs is an unclouded gaze that is set toward heaven which sees life as a brief window of time to be spent in undistracted devotion to the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:35).

This resonates with me. In our age of distraction and dissipation and dissolution, where it seems that all in our society is intentionally designed to obscure Christ and to lure people into the wasting of their lives, the believer needs to be spurred to action and encouraged to press on with zeal. We are those who are convinced that Jesus Christ is Lord, that He is King of kings and Lord of lords, that He is worthy of all praise, and that He is coming back soon to judge the living and the dead. He is the One who has died on the cross and He is the One who has been raised from the dead, and He is the One who now rules and reigns. We proclaim His name and call the nations to bow down to Him. We are those who declare, “To live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Therefore, in a world that is hostile to everything that I have just stated, the believer must be diligent to maintain his zeal without wavering.

Below are some of my own random thoughts on this subject.

My prayer – “Lord, let me never let up on the throttle! Let me never coast. Lord, fill me with Your Spirit so that I am useful until the day that I draw my last breath. Give me undimmed zeal. In Jesus’ name, amen.”

There is danger in coasting in the Christian race, even for a little while, and coasting poses a significant threat to your future usefulness. Reasons:

  • There is not one biblical reason to choose to coast, so any decision to ease up on your zeal is a decision against the Scripture. The Scripture speaks to the contrary and expects the believer to “die at their post.”
  • Because the flesh still indwells us, we are unwise to consciously reduce our zeal and “give the devil an opportunity” (Ephesians 4:27). Zeal for Christ suppresses the flesh, but reduced zeal gives the flesh breathing room. If given the chance, the flesh will kill your zeal for Christ and for His service and will turn you into a harmless pew-warmer.
  • The Lord rewards zeal, but He often withdraws His hand from those who desire to coast, and once His hand is removed, He rarely replaces it.
  • Human nature is such that when we decide to reduce our effort, even for a short while, it is difficult to get back on the track. This is seen in many human endeavors, but especially in our pressing toward the goal for Christ. The danger is that once we get accustomed to coasting, we find that our zeal has been lost. Once effort is reduced, we suddenly develop an aversion for work and an affinity for ease.

THE SCRIPTURE SPEAKS OF ZEAL

The Scriptures speak to this issue.

Ephesians 2:10 – “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Since God has prepared for us good works to carry out, we need to be zealous for good works to be sure that we do all the works that God has prepared for us.

Titus 2:14 – Jesus “gave Himself for us to purify for Himself a people zealous for good deeds.” According to this Scripture, Jesus Christ gave Himself to establish a people zealous for good deeds. This was not the only reason He gave Himself up on the cross, but it is certainly one reason. If Jesus died so that I would be a man zealous for good deeds, how can I be otherwise? My very identity is tied to my zeal. If I am not zealous for good deeds, where does that leave me with Christ?

Matthew 25:15 – The Lord gives to His people a certain number of talents, “each according to his own ability.” The thing is that you don’t know how many talents He has given you. You may live under the assumption that you are a one-talent person and so live with that level of zeal and effort, when, in fact, He may have given you five talents. He may expect much more from you than your effort produces. Therefore, better to spend all your energy for the greatest impact.

Nehemiah 6:3 – Nehemiah was building the wall of Jerusalem, which was certainly the work of his lifetime. To rebuild the wall of Jerusalem was the reason Nehemiah was created, and he knew that. So, when his enemies Tobiah and Sanballat invited him to come have dinner with them, he smells a rat and declines their invitation. But notice what Nehemiah says to them. “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down.” Nehemiah would not be distracted from his life’s work. In the same way, we should seek our “great work,” that work for which the Lord created us, and then live spending ourselves for that work.

2 Corinthians 12:15 – “I will most gladly spend and be expended for your souls.” Paul’s zeal for Christ manifested itself in the unrestrained outpouring of himself for other believers. Whatever he had and whatever he was, he eagerly poured out for the blessing and the encouragement of others.

Isaiah 6:8 – “Here am I. Send me.” In this scene, the prophet sees a vision of the Lord in the temple, lofty and exalted, and he is ruined. In the misery of his sin, he cries out to the Lord for mercy and the seraphim takes away his sin with a burning coal. It is then, after his sin is cleansed, that Isaiah hears the voice of the Lord calling for laborers to go. “Here am I. Send me.” In the zeal of his cleansing, and in his joy for now being in fellowship with the Lord, Isaiah gives the Lord a blank check for his future service to the Lord. The prophet gives no conditions to his service, and no limitations. Anywhere, anytime, for however long, he is available to be sent. And this is the normal zeal for the believer. We have been cleansed of a terminal stain and have been placed in the service of the Lord. With zeal, therefore, we give ourselves away to the Lord for as long as He sees fit to use us.

Philippians 1:21 – “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” No comment is required to understand the zeal in this statement.

2 Timothy 4:6-7 – “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.” The apostle Paul is drawing near to the end of his life. Shortly, the Roman guards will lead him away to his place of execution and his faithfulness will be sealed by his death. But Paul’s zeal has had its full expression. He will have been poured out. There will be nothing left. He has held nothing back in reserve. All will have been expended for Christ. This chosen instrument will have accomplished the work he was given to do. At some point in his journey, Paul realized that zeal is only for this life. It is only now that you can pour yourself out for Christ. Only in this fallen world can you be exhausted and expended, so Paul decided to be exhausted and expended for his Savior.

Let us imitate Paul’s zeal.

SDG                 rmb                 8/6/2021                     #427

Blessed are the persecuted (Matthew 5:10-12)

A few days ago, I wrote an article on the American disciple of Jesus and how he or she relates to persecution. The disadvantage for the American Christian is that their entire faith experience has encased them in a bubble that virtually excludes persecution as even a possibility. It is unconsciously accepted as a “fact” that real persecution for the follower of Jesus does not occur in America. “Yes, it certainly happens to believers in other countries, but it doesn’t happen to us here.” Such is the general mindset in the American church.

I do not share that confidence. It is my belief that real persecution is going to occur here in the not-too-distant future. There are simply too many warnings and teachings (and promises?) about persecution in the New Testament, and there is simply too much evil rising up on every side, for America to remain an island of refuge and safe from the heat. The Lord uses persecution as a way to test His saints, as a way to purify His church, and as a way to show His infinite worth when His saints choose to die rather than deny their Lord. The church in America and the saints in America are entitled to these benefits of persecution just as much as the believers in Nigeria or India. For these reasons, I am persuaded that the heat will soon rise.

So, as a result of this persuasion, I plan to post a series of articles on New Testament passages that address persecution so that believers in America can be prepared to stand firm rather than be surprised and shrink back.

But first, we need a definition for our topic so that we are talking about the same thing.

PERSECUTION – A DEFINITION: Significant suffering or loss intentionally inflicted on a follower of Jesus Christ by a person or group that opposes the Christian gospel and hates the person of Christ because the follower of Jesus has identified as a believer and/or has practiced their Christian faith.

OUR TEXT: MATTHEW 5:10-12

In this series of articles, we will discover that the New Testament is packed with verses that disclose the promised persecution that those who follow Jesus will experience, simply because they follow Him. In this post, we will begin near the beginning of the New Testament and cover two of the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:10-12.

10 “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. – Matthew 5:10-12

THE BLESSINGS OF PERSECUTION

During His earthly ministry, Jesus made plain to all those who would follow Him that every disciple would need to pay a high cost. This cost was never in the small print, but always at the top of the contract, capitalized in bold type. Jesus is the King of kings, and anyone who would join themselves to His kingdom needs to be willing to surrender all for His name’s sake.

And so it is that after Jesus tells the listening crowd the characteristics of His disciples In Matthew 5:3-9, He tells that same crowd of the treatment that they will receive from those outside His kingdom.

The message of these verses is crystal clear: “Blessed are those who are persecuted.” What a strange message for the Son of God to proclaim! What a very unusual recruiting tool! Jesus has just begun His earthly ministry and, although there are large crowds of the curious, He has only a few real committed followers at this point. Then, with the crowd in the palm of His hand, on the edge of their seat, He delivers the thunderclap: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.”    

THE PARADOX OF PERSECUTION

Here is paradox! “Blessed are those who are persecuted.” Jesus Christ declares to His would-be followers a paradoxical truth. The very thing that causes our natural flesh to recoil in loathing is the source of the Lord’s blessing. How can this be? Persecution involves pain and loss as others vent their hatred on us simply because we follow Jesus. And yet Jesus promises us a blessing if we will be the recipient of persecution for His name’s sake.

THOUGHTS ON THIS PERSECUTION

You must boldly and intentionally raise the flag of Jesus if you will receive the blessing of persecution. Those who are timid and reluctant will go unnoticed by their would-be persecutors. These violent aggressors will overlook you or ignore you and thus you will miss out on the blessing. You must do a lot to be persecuted, especially in a relatively docile place like America. Let your reckless boldness for Jesus kindle the persecution.

In persecution, the believer is dependent on the hatred of others. Most of Christ’s promised blessings are dependent only on our activity, but the blessing of persecution is different. In persecution, the disciple of Jesus is passive and depends on the sinful behavior of Christ’s enemies to receive the promised blessing.

Persecution is received not for disobedient behavior but for boldly obedient behavior in a context that is known to be hostile to the gospel and hostile to Jesus. There is simply no other way to be persecuted. The disciple who would receive the blessing of persecution is the disciple who remains steadfast and immovable in the face of very real potential threats. This is the disciple who refuses to bow down even as they feel the heat of the fiery furnace. This is the disciple who prefers a context hostile to the gospel and has already decided that bold, visible obedience is not optional, but is just part of what it means to follow Jesus. This is the disciple who seeks the blessing of persecution.

Blessed are those who are persecuted.” Those who have been persecuted declare that, not after death, but in the very experience of persecution, there is a sense of the Lord’s blessing. The blessing is in the persecution. All true believers will be glorified and will spend eternity in heaven with the Lord, but what will we experience in this life? The blessings of persecution can only be experienced here during this mortal life. Why not receive this blessing of persecution, also?

SDG                 rmb                 6/29/2021                   #418

The American Christian and persecution (2 Timothy 3:12)

The disciple of Jesus in America is at a distinct disadvantage because of their religious context. What I mean is that the American follower of Jesus comes to faith and lives out their faith in circumstances that are not only very different from those of most of the rest of the world, but also in circumstances that are in many ways foreign to the teaching of the New Testament. Although the cultural environment in America is changing with astonishing speed, the basic mindset of virtually all professing believers in this country is that being a Christian is an honorable and respectable thing, and that our freedom to practice our faith in the Lord Jesus without fear is an inalienable right. The American disciple of Jesus assumes that, as long as he is not too vocal about his faith and as long as he remains winsome and respectable in public, he will be able to go peacefully to his pleasant, pretty church building on Sundays and worship the Lord Jesus unhindered.

OUR ASSUMPTIONS HINDER US

But it is these basic assumptions which hinder our willingness, and thus hinder our ability, to take risks for our faith. The follower of Jesus described in the pages of the New Testament is one who has already given up everything to follow Jesus (Luke 5:11; Mark 10:28; Philippians 3:8), so, when they are called to take risks, they have nothing left to lose. The disciple of Jesus has already died: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). For the one who has already died, the risk of death holds but a feeble threat.

But when Jesus personally called the “rich, young ruler” to follow Him, the risk of losing everything was too high (Luke 18:22; etc.). The Son of God in the flesh gave this man a personal invitation to eternal life if he would but give up all his possessions and the man chose the possessions and refused eternal life. The comfort of his possessions and his easy way of life and his prominence in the community and his respectability and his reputation in the synagogue all hindered him from following Jesus. He simply had too much to lose. Eternal life wasn’t worth the risk. Are we any different?

The life of the New Testament disciple of Jesus is a life that takes intentional risks so that his King may be glorified and so that others can enter the Kingdom. The lives of the believers in the New Testament were inherently risky, and the stakes were high. But, generally speaking, our lives as disciples of Jesus in America are intentionally safe. We have been raised in a Christian culture that avoids risks. With very few exceptions, our role models in the American church are not those known for taking risks. Since our role models avoid risks, and since the overall Christian culture prefers prudence to reckless abandon, we play it safe and continue to believe that persecution is something that happens “over there.” We continue to believe that we can live godly in Christ Jesus and not be persecuted.

DENYING THE BIBLICAL FACTS OF PERSECUTION

The background of the American disciple of Christ almost prevents the acceptance of the biblical facts of persecution. The biblical fact is that Jesus calls all His followers to forsake everything for His name and for the sake of His kingdom, but the American disciple, without even thinking about it, translates that into something like, “Jesus wants me to read my Bible, go to church, and be faithful in my giving.” The biblical fact is that “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12), but the American Christian immediately interprets persecution as something like the people in your office thinking you are weird because of what you do on Sundays and because they have heard you mention the word “God” in conversations. The idea that simply telling your parents that you have become a follower of Jesus could result in them beating you, calling you a traitor, an infidel, and the scum of the earth, and possibly even killing you, is outside the American believer’s imagination. Most American pastors would consider it absurd if someone suggested they could go to jail simply for preaching the gospel in their church. This is not because their faith is small or because they are not true believers or because we are unaware of the experience of many suffering believers in the world. We have this mindset in America because believers here have been protected, and even lauded, by a constitution that has been upheld ever since this country was founded. Not only that, but Christianity has been and still is the dominant religious expression in the country. Many of those expressions are stagnant, apostate, or even heretical, but in this country, a “religion” that is somehow associated with Jesus is still viewed as generally virtuous.

THE PROBLEM THAT WE FAIL TO READ OUR BIBLES

One of the reasons why professing American followers of Jesus have this unbiblical view of persecution and of the cost of following Jesus is that many professing believers are unfamiliar with their Bibles. In churches where the sermons are shallow and are not founded on the biblical text, and where Bible reading is not an expected part of Christian growth, the congregation will be ignorant of the prominence of persecution that is implicit and explicit throughout the New Testament. An ignorant congregation cannot be an obedient congregation, for you cannot obey what you do not know to be a command or an expectation. This woeful situation of biblical ignorance explains much of the worldly mindset that exists in American Christianity.

The solution for this problem is obvious. A church that claims to be Christian is a church that must preach the whole counsel of God so that the congregation hears the word of God properly taught from the pulpit. Churches that do not do this should repent and begin to be Bible-based churches. But also, the professing disciple of Jesus must hear from his church leadership that Bible reading is an expectation of every Christian, and then must begin to include serious Bible reading into their Christian discipleship. There is no discipleship without active, regular Bible reading. Without the regular intake of the Word, you will not grow.

THE PROBLEM OF HOW WE READ OUR BIBLES

For those disciples of Jesus who do read their Bible, there can be another obstacle, and that obstacle is the way most American Christians read their Bibles. It is hard to put this into words, but it is the tendency to read without feeling the full impact of the passage. It is reading how the apostle Paul was stoned by the people of Lystra (Acts 14:19-20) and they “dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead” (because he probably was dead!), and then not grasping the fact that the greatest Christian missionary was nearly killed many times and was eventually executed for the crime of preaching Jesus. It is reading how the apostles rejoiced because they were “considered worthy to suffer shame for Jesus’ name” (Acts 5:41), and then refusing to tell your friend that you have become a Christian even when he asks you repeatedly “What’s new?” It is reading Paul’s great declaration, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21), and then hesitating to go on a mission trip because of the possibility of contracting a disease.

We read our Bibles in a detached way, believing that these events in the Bible really happened as they are described, but not identifying them as anything that would ever happen to me. I see the suffering and the sacrifice of my heroes, and I see the world’s hostility against those that I admire for their personal holiness and commitment to Christ, and yet there seems to be a disconnect in my ability to see myself at the end of that spear. “Oh, I could never see myself doing that, but I admire these brothers that have this level of commitment.”

I don’t think that I hesitate overly long over these types of adventures because I am a spoiled coward, at least I hope that is not the reason. I think, I hope it is mostly the collective expectations of decades of “safe” evangelicalism that has rendered me a seeker of safety instead of one who gives up what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.

PROPOSED SOLUTIONS: The solution to this problem is anything but simple and obvious. I think the solution will involve diligent searching for a strategy followed by lots of hard work at carrying out the plan. The first step to solving any problem, though, is identifying the problem, and then admitting that it is, in fact, a problem. Hopefully, this article has taken a step in the direction of identifying the problem for the American Christian.

The next step I would propose would be making a conscious effort to say “yes” to risky ventures for the kingdom of God before you fully consider the risk.

Another thought would be to say “yes” to any and all assignments you sense you are called to do without any consideration of the risk. That is, the only question you are seeking to answer is, “Has the Lord called me to this assignment?” Any risk is the Lord’s area of responsibility. Obedience to His call is my area of responsibility.

Another strategy is that of over-commitment. Make commitments that exceed your capacity and then trust that the Lord will expand your capacity.

Another thought is to explore areas of ministry that create fear and stress in your gut.

And I am sure that others can conceive of other ways to turn the average “play it safe” American disciple of Christ into a fire breather who would never shrink back.

“Some wish to live within the sound of church and chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.” C. T. Studd

SDG                 rmb                 6/24/2021                   #417

The transformation of suffering (Hebrews 2:14-15)

The Lord is worthy of all praise, at all times and in all circumstances. There is, therefore, no circumstance of suffering that is not a suitable occasion for praising our great God. Romans 8:18 declares, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that is to be revealed to us.” As Jesus endured the sufferings of the cross because of the joy that was set before Him (Hebrews 12:2), so we are not to elevate suffering above its place but are to fix our eyes on heaven (Colossians 3:1-2). But neither are we to miss the purpose of suffering in our lives. Consider that suffering gives us fellowship with Jesus.

CONSIDER THAT JESUS SUFFERED

Jesus was sent from heaven to earth, into our world because it was necessary for Him to suffer. His mission required suffering and this world is the only place in the universe where suffering exists. He shared in our suffering so that, as we suffer, we can now share in His sufferings.

There is great suffering in the book of Job, and at that point in redemptive history, there was no evidence that God understood our suffering. God remained aloof, divinely removed from and above our suffering, and so the perception was that we suffered alone. Man suffered, and God observed, remote, stoic, and ready to judge. The impression was that suffering was a punishment for sin and where there was great suffering, there must, necessarily, be great sin.   

But now Jesus Christ has suffered, and so suffering has now become a divine activity. Now through suffering we, who belong to Jesus, share in the fellowship of His sufferings (Philippians 3:10). Thus, suffering is now an ennobled privilege. What formerly was a pointless product of the fall has now, through Christ, been transformed into a spiritual discipline. Now, we who suffer as guilty victims of Adam’s sin, can know, through our suffering, joyous fellowship with Him who suffered to vanquish our sin.

A WINDOW OF FELLOWSHIP

So then, in Christ, a window of fellowship has been opened, for Christ the sinless one has taken on flesh and blood (John 1:14; Philippians 2:5-8; Hebrews 2:14-15) so that He could suffer with us. Since the Holy One has suffered, those who call upon His name now suffer as a holy activity. Because of Christ, the suffering that formerly was miserable and meaningless has been transformed into a means of sanctification. Christ my Lord has suffered, and now I suffer. Hallelujah!

SDG                 rmb                 5/13/2021

God displays His holiness (Exodus 19)

Our God is a holy God, and His holiness requires wrath and judgment against all that is unholy. Therefore, all sin receives His full wrath in judgment. Because our God is holy, we should not be surprised that the Bible presents us with occasions when the wrath of God breaks into time and space.

As the children of Israel fled the Egyptians into the wilderness, they quickly arrived at Sinai where God was going to give them His Law (Exodus 19). This giving of the Law was the first time that God had explicitly manifested His holiness to His people, stating in a moral code the expression of His holiness in commandments and ordinances. As stated, His Law was inflexible and uncompromising, and every violation received a just recompense (Hebrews 2:2). It was a Law of condemnation and judgment that required blood sacrifices if there was to be any forgiveness. The Law was terrifying and awesome and was meant to instill fear and reverence in the people.

When God delivered His Law and displayed His holiness, everything about the occasion brought feelings of awe and fear. The LORD told Moses,

Let the people be ready for the third day, for on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:11-12).

Then, in 19:16:

16 So it came about on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunder and lightning flashes and a thick cloud over the mountain and a very loud trumpet sound, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled.

18 Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the entire mountain quaked violently. 19 When the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him with thunder.

The LORD is holy, and whenever He manifests Himself to sinful man, man is overwhelmed and undone (Isaiah 6). But here, not only is the LORD coming down from heaven to speak to His people, but He is also delivering His holy Law, the Law of condemnation, the Law that every one of His people will violate (Romans 3:23), the Law that will result in judgment, the Law that will require the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cross. So here, on Mount Sinai, everything evokes awe and fear. There is thunder and lightning flashes and thick cloud. There is a loud trumpet sound coming from heaven (19:16), and this eerie, heavenly blare of the trumpet grows louder and louder (19:19). The entire mountain is engulfed in smoke and fire. The smoke ascends like the smoke of a furnace, and the entire mountain is quaking violently. “Our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29).” Abject terror is the response from the people, which is entirely appropriate. God is manifesting His holiness in Law and judgment, and it evokes terrified reverence.

It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God. – Hebrews 10:31

But there was another occasion even more awesome than this day at Mount Sinai when God again manifested His holiness. This occasion involved a hill instead of a mountain, and there was no thunder or lightning or fire or billowing smoke like a furnace. There was no eerie heavenly trumpet blast getting louder and louder. The scene was fairly quiet, just some bystanders looking on as three men endured the agony of crucifixion. Then something changed.

When the sixth hour came, darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour. – Mark 15:33

Darkness. There was darkness over the whole land, the darkness of judgment, the darkness of condemnation. Darkness as the expression of God’s holiness. And now the Man on the middle cross seemed to be enduring an agony much deeper than mere physical pain. This is Jesus Christ, the Chosen One. This is Jesus, the only One worthy to bear our sin, the only One able to bear our sin, Jesus Christ the Holy One enduring the full fury of the wrath of God against the sins of His people.

He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. – 2 Corinthians 5:21

So, for three hours on this Friday, Jesus Christ became sin for me and received the punishment that my sins deserved. He encountered the holiness of God in judgment.

At the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which is translated, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” – Mark 15:34

But Jesus’ suffering did have an end, for there was a goal in view. By His awesome work on the cross, Jesus propitiated God’s wrath. In John’s gospel, after the agonies of God’s wrath, Jesus shouts a victory cry.

Therefore, when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And He bowed His head and gave up His spirit. – John 19:30

Because Jesus died on the cross, we no longer stand terrified at the foot of the mountain, dreading the wrath of God and His judgment. Now, because of Jesus, God’s holiness is our holiness. Because of Jesus’ work on the cross and our faith in Him, Jesus’ perfect righteousness is our righteousness. Because of God’s grace, by our transformed lives we are now displays of God’s holiness.

SDG                 rmb                 4/7/2021

Our suffering as accomplishment (1 Peter 5:9)

“But resist him (the devil), firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world.” – 1 Peter 5:9 (NASB)

            Christ has suffered, and so His body, the church, is also called to suffer. Paul’s goal is to know “the fellowship (“koinonia” in Greek) of Christ’s sufferings (Philippians 3:10).” It may correctly be said that to be a Christian is to anticipate suffering for the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 5:10-12). The apostle Peter mentions in his first epistle that Christ suffered and left us an example to follow in His steps (1 Peter 2:21). As Christ has suffered, so we will suffer as witnesses to Him. Jesus said, “And you shall be My witnesses (Acts 1:8),” and the Greek word for witnesses is the word “martyr.” So, we are certainly to anticipate suffering for the name of Jesus. But while it is true that Christ suffered in the flesh (1 Peter 3:18; 4:1) and that the church also suffers, there is a profound difference between these two experiences of suffering.

            Christ has suffered in the flesh and has perfectly accomplished the work the Father gave Him to do. In John 17:4, Jesus said, “I glorified You (the Father) on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do.” What work did He accomplish? Jesus accomplished the work of atonement. That was the reason Jesus was sent to the earth, to accomplish the work of atonement, a work that He alone could accomplish. To accomplish this work, Christ had to endure the full fury of the wrath of God against all the sins of all His people of all time. Thus, Christ suffered as a means of accomplishing His work. Accomplishing His work involved suffering, but His work was not the suffering itself. How much suffering was Christ required to endure? Exactly the amount of suffering needed to propitiate the wrath of God against His people’s sins.

            Then, when God had poured out all His wrath on Christ, Christ’s work was done. Therefore, Jesus could cry out, “Tetelestai!” “It is finished (John 19:30)!” Three hours of suffering the full wrath of God had been endured and His work was accomplished. Once Jesus’ work of atonement was accomplished, His life could be yielded up (John 19:30; Luke 23:46; Matthew 27:50), because the purpose of His life was fulfilled, and now He needed to die.

            We have already said, “Since Christ suffered, so we will also suffer,” but for Christ’s body, the church, our suffering is central, not incidental. That is, there is an amount of suffering that the body of Christ must accomplish. Note what Peter says in 1 Peter 5:9: “the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world.” The verse says that the suffering is the work being accomplished. God has ordained that the body of Christ must suffer as an end and not merely as a means to some other end. As we have seen above, Christ’s suffering was the means necessary to accomplish His work of atonement, but the church’s suffering is the work to be accomplished.

            The New Testament has much to say about suffering for the name of Jesus Christ, but there is also an underlying theme in the New Testament suggesting that there is a predetermined amount of suffering which the church must “accomplish” to fulfill her purpose of witnessing. Consider these verses.

  • “Just as it is written, ‘For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered’ (Romans 8:36).” As the sheep were sacrificed routinely and anonymously, so the church suffers continually and without glory to give testimony to the worth of Christ.
  • “Now I rejoice (!) in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh, I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions (Colossians 1:24).” Notice that Paul’s sufferings are on behalf of the church and that they are “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” This thought is consistent with the idea that the purpose of the church is to witness to Christ through suffering.
  • We have already looked at 1 Peter 5:9, “the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world.”
  • Underneath the altar were the souls of those who had been slain (for Jesus), and they cried out, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood?” They were told to rest a little while longer until the number of their fellow servants who were to be killed even as they had been would be completed also (Revelation 6:9-11). The clear message from this passage is that God has determined a set number of martyrs who must be killed to complete the testimony of the church.

The church is called to be a witness to the risen Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 1:8). This is one of the purposes of the church, and the collective suffering of the entire church is accomplishing this part of the church’s purpose. Thus, it may be said that a suffering church is an accomplishing church.                         

SDG                rmb                 1/20/2021

Do we seek suffering? – Part 2 (Philippians 3:10)

“that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings.” – the apostle Paul in Philippians 3:10

It seems that the statement is made at some point in conversations about suffering, especially among American Christians. It is usually well intended and sounds like an appropriate thing to say in response to affliction for the name of Jesus. “Well, of course, the Christian is not called to seek out suffering. . .” But the more I think about that statement, the more uncomfortable I become. Is that true? Are we not to seek suffering? And if that is the case, then why do so many of my heroes in the Bible and so many Christians in history suffer for their faith? Is it normal to be a serious Christian and not suffer for my faith? And what do I do if God is calling me to a course of action that almost certainly includes suffering to some degree?

            Because of the importance of the topic of suffering for the believer, I am going to spend several posts exploring what I see to be problems with the statement, “Of course, the Christian is not called to seek out suffering.” The goal is to arrive at a solid perspective on suffering that makes me more useful to Jesus.

            Problem #1 (January 5) dealt with the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ effectively sought out His own suffering as the necessary means for accomplishing His mission of redemption and atonement. Since Jesus sought suffering, it seems hard to imagine that we do not. In this post we will look at Problem #2.

“Well, of course, the Christian is not called to seek out suffering . . .”

PROBLEM #2

            “That’s really a trivial statement.”

Upon examination, we realize that the declaration above (“Of course, we do not seek suffering”) is somewhat trivial. What I mean is this: Of course, Christians do not seek out suffering! No one in their right mind seeks out suffering as an end in itself, so saying that the Christian is not called to seek suffering is just stating the obvious. Jesus did not call His disciples to seek suffering for suffering’s sake, but He did call us to follow Him wherever He leads regardless of any real or imagined consequences. The consequences of my obedience are the Lord’s responsibility. He determines those, and one of those potential consequences may be suffering. Another consequence could be my physical death. As a disciple of Jesus, I choose to obey regardless. The duty of obedience is my responsibility. I obey because obedience to my Master is my highest aim. I long to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

When viewed in this light, the possibility of suffering is irrelevant. It is beside the point. Suffering is just one of the potential consequences of my obedience to the Lord. Why focus on one potential consequence instead of focusing on the goal or the prize of my obedience (Philippians 3:14)? Why highlight this one possible personal consequence instead of bringing all glory to Christ and focusing all my energy on proclaiming the gospel? Why think about a consequence of obedience that might cause me to shrink back from God’s appointed path (Hebrews 10:38-39), instead of running with endurance the race before me and fixing my eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-2), which will spur me on?

The bottom line is that the disciple of Jesus does not seek out a path just because it offers an opportunity to suffer, but neither does the disciple of Jesus shrink back from any God-appointed path that requires personal suffering. Suffering is not sought, nor is it required, but neither is it ever avoided.

SDG                 rmb                 1/9/2021

Do we seek suffering? – Part 1 (Phil. 3:10)

            It seems that the statement is made at some point in most conversations about suffering, especially among American Christians. It is usually well intended and sounds like an appropriate thing to say in response to suffering for the name of Jesus. “Well, of course, the Christian is not called to seek suffering. . .” But the more I think about that statement, the more uncomfortable I become. Is that true? Are we not to seek suffering? And if that is the case, then why do so many of my heroes in the Bible and in history suffer for their faith? Why does the Bible have so much to say about suffering if my experience of the Christian life can safely avoid it? Is it normal to be a serious Christian and not suffer? And what do I do if God is calling me to a course that will almost certainly result in my suffering to some degree?

            Because of these questions and because of the importance of the topic of suffering, I am going to spend the next several posts exploring what I see to be problems with this statement. The goal is to arrive at a solid perspective on suffering that makes me more useful to Jesus.

“Well, of course, the Christian is not called to seek out suffering . . .”

PROBLEM #1

“Can you support that statement with Scripture?”

The first reaction to this statement may be to agree with it and let the conversation move on, but as discerning followers of Jesus, we must respond to these types of statements with at least a small challenge.

“That’s an interesting idea. Can you support that statement with Scripture?” Scripture is the place where all disciples of Jesus find a common foundation. Does a given theological position, or a faith practice find solid support in the word of God?

When I think about the fact that Jesus Christ was acutely aware of His appointed suffering on the cross from the beginning of His ministry and had, in fact, been sent to earth for the express purpose of suffering and dying on the cross, I seriously wonder if I can support the statement above. My entire salvation depends upon Jesus seeking suffering. Jesus’ mission could only be accomplished if He suffered and died on the cross. Where does the Lord Jesus tell His disciples that they are not to seek out suffering? Chapter and verse, please.

What about Paul? Paul intentionally did things that provoked persecution and inevitably resulted in his suffering. In Philippi he cast out a demon that ended the merchants’ revenue with the slave girl. He must have known that this was going to result in his being punished and his suffering.

Paul continued his way to Jerusalem knowing that conflict awaited him there (Acts 20-21). His own people pleaded with him to turn back and to change his plans, but Paul steadfastly refused even though he knew that he would suffer. Would Paul agree with the statement that the Christian does not seek out suffering?

And then there is Peter. Peter was warned repeatedly that, if he continued with his preaching about Jesus in Jerusalem, he was going to be severely punished (Acts 4-5), and yet he never even slowed down. If the Jewish or Roman authorities needed to punish someone for preaching about Jesus, Peter was not hard to find. Also, his first epistle has as its central theme the perseverance of the believer in the face of suffering for Christ. Would Peter say that the believer does not seek suffering?

            In the Old Testament, evil kings and false prophets warned the true prophets that, if they did not silence their prophecy or change their message, they would be punished, and the true prophets remained true to the message the LORD had given them to proclaim. For example, more than once, Jeremiah suffered for the message that he preached, but he would rather be punished with the stripes of men than fail to obey the LORD and deliver His message.

            So, while these heroes from Scripture may not have sought suffering, the prospect of suffering was not a factor in their decision-making. They sought to be obedient to the LORD, regardless. That is the view that the Scripture supports.

SDG rmb 1/5/2021

But let’s take a step back for a minute. Maybe the problem with the statement is the statement itself. That is, maybe we are saying what we mean in a clumsy way. My next post will explore that possibility in PROBLEM #2. rmb