The Christian Response to Suffering, Part Four
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, November 7, 1999
Copyright © 1999, P. G. Mathew
His name was Dr. A.K. John. For over thirty years he did Christian mission work in the state of Kerala, South India, providing the poor Indians with literacy education and medical care as well as proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. On October 23, 1999, Dr. John went to his office as usual to work. There he was brutally murdered. He was seventy-two years of age.
The Christian life includes sufferings for the sake of Jesus Christ. In fact, both the Lord Jesus and his apostles taught us to expect sufferings and even death from this world which opposes God and his people.
In his first epistle the apostle Peter wrote, "Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice because you are participating in the sufferings of Christ. . . . Know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings" (1 Peter 4:12-13; 5:9). In 2 Timothy 3:12 the apostle Paul wrote, "Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." In John 16:33 Jesus said, "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." So he said to his disciples, "Deny yourself, take up your cross daily and follow me," meaning, "follow me to death."
In this study we want to learn how to respond to sufferings--sufferings for Christ's sake, sufferings for righteousness' sake, sufferings in God's will, sufferings because we bear his name.
Temporal Suffering, Eternal Glory
In 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 Paul writes, "Therefore, we do not lose heart, though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an immeasurable abundance of eternal glory." And verse 18 can be translated in this way, "Because or provided that we fix our eyes, we gaze upon, not on what is seen, but on what is unseen." Why? "for what is seen is temporary and transient, but what is unseen is eternal."
We recently heard of the death of the great football player Walter Payton. Some time ago Payton said, "Man's glory fades away." Perhaps he said that when he discovered his terminal disease. Payton was speaking of earthly glory, but there is another glory that does not fade away--the glory that is eternal.
How do Christians respond to suffering? How can we be not discouraged and lose heart? How can we even rejoice greatly as we experience fiery trials?
First, we must know the gospel and be inspired by it. If you study the Bible, you will not be surprised and think it strange that Christians experience trouble. Know the gospel, that Christ destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light. Know the gospel, that through Jesus Christ you are given eternal life and no one is able to snatch you out of his hand. Know the gospel, that your life is hid with Christ in God. Know the gospel, that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, ascended into the heavens, and that he is Lord of all.
Second, we must know that in God's will suffering accomplishes something for a Christian. What is it? Eternal glory.
Third, we must fix our eyes on heaven. In the midst of suffering and trials, we must see God and his kingdom by faith. We must look at our troubles from a heavenly perspective, in the light of the knowledge of the kingdom of God and of the triumph of Jesus Christ. Only when we do that can we look at our troubles and call them momentary and insignificant.
A Heavenly Scope
In 2 Corinthians 4:18 Paul writes, "So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is not seen." Look at the phrase "fix our eyes." The Greek word is skope˘, from which we get microscope and telescope. The idea here is that we are not just casually looking at something; rather, we are painstakingly observing, critically investigating, studying carefully, just as those who use microscopes and telescopes study whatever they are looking at very carefully.
In its noun form the word skopos means goal, and the idea is of an athlete who fixes his eyes on a goal and continues to look at it as he moves toward it. Again, this is not some kind of casual glance or casual observance of something, but a fixed, unmoveable focus on something. In other words, Paul was saying that he habitually, daily, continually fixed his eyes, as with a scope, on the invisible, eternal realities of the kingdom of God. This is the meaning of transcendence--the ability to go beyond the things of this world and to view, gaze upon, delight in, reflect, and meditate on abiding eternal realities.
Unbelievers do not have this ability to see eternal realities. They do have scopes, but their scopes are not very powerful. They are incapable of seeing beyond the temporal. The Carl Sagans, the Stephen Goulds, the Richard Dawkinses and Stephen Hawkings of this world cannot peer into the abiding and eternal realms. They simply cannot, because they are materialists. They are without God and, therefore, without hope. They have no transcendence; rather, their hope is in this world only. They can only look upon things temporal.
Why are unbelievers incapable of seeing eternal realities? Their inability is an effect of the Fall of man in the garden of Eden. To understand that, we must look to God's revelation in the Holy Scriptures.
Blinded by Satan
In 1 Corinthians 2:14 we read, "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them because they are spiritually discerned." A man needs a spiritual scope to be able to peer into and participate somehow in the invisible, abiding, and eternal realities of the transcendent kingdom of God. Oh, he may be able to easily turn on the radio or watch television or read magazines or books or listen to people speak, but it is all flat, mundane, of this world.
Second Corinthians 4:3-4 tells us the problem of the people of the world. There Paul writes, "And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing." Why are they perishing? "The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God." Unbelievers have very little power in their scopes. They are nearsighted and cannot see the things of God.
In recent times a laser surgery has been developed which enables nearsighted people to see without glasses. An unbeliever needs spiritual laser surgery to enable him to see heaven and the Trinity--God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost. He needs surgery to be able to see the cross and Jesus on it, not as a criminal or even as great teacher, but as one who is the Son of God, who became perfect man and died in behalf of us.
Notice, then, "The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God." This is the spiritual incapacity of unbelievers.
How serious is this blinding? Do you remember Samson? When the Philistines were finally able to bind him, what was the first thing they did to him? Gouged out his eyes! Do you remember King Zedekiah, who rebelled against Babylon and against the prophets of God? Zedekiah tried to get away, but Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon caught him. After killing all his children before him, Nebuchadnezzar gouged out Zedekiah's eyes.
Oh, but there is a gouging out of our eyes that is worse than what these two men experienced. It is to be blinded by Satan, that we may not see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, that we may not believe the gospel, that we may not understand the gospel. This is a much greater tragedy than losing physical sight.
Every son of Adam is afflicted with this inability, this incapacity, to see beyond this present world. Blinded by Satan, they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God.
Focused on This World
We find several illustrations of people who were blinded by Satan, the god of this world. In Matthew 19 we read about a rich young ruler who came to Jesus and asked the question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" This man told Jesus he was very righteous and had kept the law. What did Jesus tell him? "I want you to go and sell everything you have, give it to the poor and come, follow me." The man refused to do this and went away sad.
What was wrong with this man? His eyes were blinded. He was a nearsighted person who worshiped his money and this temporal world. Even though this man knew about Jesus Christ, met him, and spoke to him face to face, he could not confess that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, the Savior of the world. This is blindness--a complete failure to see who Jesus Christ really is and what he offers to us. To this man Jesus Christ was just a rabbi.
In Luke 12, beginning with verse 13, we read, "Someone in the crowd said to him, 'Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.' Jesus replied, 'Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?' Then he said to them, 'Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.'" Then Jesus continued, "A man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." Nearsightedness is to think that one's life consists in things.
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable: "The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, 'What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.'" He built a bigger barn, and then he said to himself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry." This is the materialist. This is the nearsighted person whose scope does not have much power. He cannot peer into the heavenlies and see eternal realities.
In verse 20 we read, "But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'" And now Jesus comes out with the truth: "This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God."
In Philippians 3:18-19 Paul describes those who lack transcendent vision: "For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things." These are nearsighted materialists, idolaters, people without transcendence, blind, natural people who cannot see heavenly things, enduring things, eternal things. But then Paul says in verse 20, "Our citizenship is in heaven."
In Revelation 3 we are told about the church of Laodicea. In verse 17 we find the church's evaluation of herself: "You say 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.'" But then Jesus Christ gives the true evaluation of this church: "You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked." These are the people about whom Jesus Christ asked, "What does it profit if you gain the whole world and lose your soul? What can you give in exchange for your soul?"
If we are Christians, we must never be envious of the people of the world. Let us realize that they are fools, blind, flat, lacking transcendence. They eat, they vomit, and they eat again--nothing more than that.
We must also realize the truth about this present world. In 1 Corinthians 7:31 we read, "For this world in its present form is passing away." You see, a materialist doesn't believe that. He puts all his faith and energy into this world. But a Christian understands what God is saying: Just like the city of Sodom was destroyed, this world in its present form will pass away.
Do you understand now why the unbelievers of the world cannot peer into things eternal? They are blinded by the god of this world. They cannot understand the gospel; therefore, they reject it and mock it.
The Scope of Faith
The second point, then, is that we need a scope that is powerful enough to see beyond the mundane and temporal. What is that scope made of? Faith. In 2 Corinthians 5:7 Paul says, "We live by faith, not by sight." A Christian is one to whom this capacity, this scope, is given, so that on a daily, moment-by-moment basis, he can go beyond the mundane, the temporal--the wasting away, the suffering, and the troubles of this world--and see God, the kingdom of God, and all that is everlasting.
How sad are those who do not have this capacity to live by faith and not by sight! In Hebrews 11:1-2 we read, "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible." And in verse 6 we read, "And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that God exists and he is a rewarder of those who earnestly seek him." Faith is the only scope that will help us transcend the troubles of this world.
Our Eyes Must Be Opened
How do we get faith? It is a by-product of the divine miracle called regeneration. Natural man is dead in trespasses and sins, but if God in his mercy and great love comes upon you by his Spirit, he will make you alive. Then your eyes, which were blinded by Satan, will be opened and you will be able to see God. Before you could only stoop down and worship money and the things of this world, but now you can look up to see God, and praise and worship him. When you are born again, you are given power to peer into the heavenlies.
We find a description of this transformation in 2 Corinthians 4:6, "For God who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness' made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." That is regeneration. That is quickening. That is raising us from the dead. All of a sudden, we believe the gospel. We worship Jesus Christ and see him as God's Son. We see the glories of heaven rather than the flatness of this world.
When this happens to us, God will cause hope to spring within the depths of our being. As we look upon our bodies, we will see this wasting away, but then we can look upon God and be encouraged. Our eyes have seen the glory of the Lord! When we do this, all the troubles of this world will then truly seem momentary, trifling, and insignificant. And not only will we see that God is glorious, but we will realize that his singular purpose in redemption is to make us glorious and to grant us fullness of eternal glory. That is the wonder of it all.
In Matthew 13:44 we read, "The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field." How can anyone find a treasure unless his eyes are opened? God opened this man's eyes that he could see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ through the gospel. Then he went and sold all he had so that he could possess the treasure he had found.
If you find that you are unable to forsake all for Jesus' sake, you must conclude that your eyes have not yet been opened. You haven't seen the treasure. You haven't seen who Jesus Christ is. Remember when Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" Oh, the eyes of Peter were opened and he confessed the truth, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God."
Do you want to be happy in the midst of troubles, even fiery trials? Do you want to be satisfied with whatever comes your way? Let me assure you, you need nothing but this sweet and wonderful knowledge of the greatest treasure, Jesus Christ.
Do you understand him? Have you trusted in him? Have your eyes been opened by the Spirit of the living God? Oh, then you will worship. Then you will rejoice. Then you will sing. Then you will forsake all your sins. Then you will recognize the treasure is not a field, but Jesus Christ, who is not just a man and a teacher, but God and Savior. Then with great joy you will sell all you have to possess Jesus Christ. Then you will deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow Jesus Christ to death. Why? Because Jesus Christ has given you eternal life.
This happened to Paul, and that is why he could say, "We walk by faith, not by sight." Oh, it was not true of him all his life. But on the road to Damascus, Christ Jesus intervened, opened Paul's eyes, and Paul cried out, "Who art thou, Lord?" "I am Jesus," the Lord replied. And Paul began right away to preach that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. The same man wrote to the Romans later, saying, "If you confess with your mouth 'Jesus is Lord' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you are saved."
Enjoying Real Life
God gives us the scope of faith so that we may live a Christian life. What is the Christian life? It means living in the reality of God and his kingdom. It means we look through the scope, see heavenly realities and understand that the fashion and the form of this world is passing away.
The people of this world are engrossed in this world. They eat and drink, plant and harvest, buy and sell, marry and give in marriage--all with no thought of transcendence, no thought of God. Why? Because their scope is powerless. They are nearsighted and can only see this world.
But if you have experienced the miracle of regeneration, you are given power, capacity, divine ability to peer into the eternal. Thus, you will not worship gold or silver or idols or any such thing. You will worship and serve God.
In 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 we read, "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we who with unveiled faces all reflect [or contemplate or view or see]. . . ." What do we see? Gold? Silver? Trees? Houses? Palaces? No! "we who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory. . ." That is what you do. You are given this amazing gift of the scope of faith and you can use it to see the eternal realities of God and his kingdom--that which endures; that which is permanent; that which can never spoil, perish or fade; that which is incorruptible; that which will never disappoint you.
In 1 Peter 1:3 we read that God the Father "in his great mercy . . . has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade--kept in heaven for you." That is what we see by faith on a daily basis.
When we do this, then we can look at our bodies that are wasting away and at all the troubles that we experience and not lose heart. Yes, our troubles are real. But when you compare them to eternal realities, the trials and troubles become momentary and insignificant. That is the Christian life.
We Must Walk by Faith!
Living by faith means we first see the eternal realities--God and his kingdom--from the Holy Scriptures and then deal with the issues of this world in the light of that knowledge. When we do this, everything assumes its proper proportion, even our sufferings and trials. But if we don't see God, the reverse will happen: God and heaven will be discounted and seen as insignificant, as nothing, as of no relevance, and we will magnify and exaggerate our problems.
Christians do this when they are not regularly praying and studying the Bible. If Christians are not exercising faith and growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, God will be very small to them. Thus, it is very important that, as Christians, we walk by faith and not by sight, as Paul urges us to do. This was his own habit. He always looked to God, and in his writings we notice that he is always praying and communicating with God. That is how we should live.
May God help us all to grow stronger in this faith which he has given us, so that we may live by faith, not by sight. May we exercise it on a daily basis and look to God, not to our problems. May we look to God early in the morning, before we run off to work and our other responsibilities. May we look into the Bible frequently, because it is there that we find these eternal realities. If we do these things, everything is all right. We will have a great calm in the depth of our souls, knowing that whatever happens, God is in control.
The Example of Abraham
Let us examine the lives of some people who lived by faith, not by sight. In Romans 4 we read about Abraham, who is called the father of all who believe.
In Romans 4:17 Paul quotes God's promise to Abraham given in Genesis 17:5, "As it is written: 'I have made you a father of many nations.'" Then Paul says, "He [Abraham] is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed--the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were."
Abraham exercised faith in God, in other words. And so in verse 18 we read, "Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, 'So shall your offspring be.' Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead--since he was about one hundred years old--and that Sarah's womb was also dead." This was the truth of Abraham's situation.
You see, we are not saying that this world and its troubles are just illusion or maya. We are not Christian Scientists or Hindus. We believe that this world is real and the problems we experience in this world are real. When Abraham looked upon his body, he made the correct conclusion: it was as good as dead. But God had promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations, and Abraham believed God.
Notice, then, in verse 20 we read, "Yet he did not waiver through unbelief, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised." Abraham saw God through the scope of faith. He hoped and trusted in God because he knew that God is one who can raise the dead. Abraham knew God was not small. He knew God was able to call things into existence which never existed. In fact, the whole universe sprang into being at the word of God.
In Hebrews 11:10 we read that Abraham "was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God." You may think that Abraham was lost in the cattle, gold, and silver that God had blessed him with. Oh, no. When you study the Bible, you will find out that Abraham did not trust in any of those things. Abraham looked to God; thus, he was looking for a city with foundations whose builder and maker is God, which is the kingdom of God. He was looking for a city that will never perish and be destroyed--the new heaven and new earth--where there is no sin.
Abraham is included in this description in verse 16 of people who lived by faith: "Instead, they were longing for a better country--a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them." We must always look to God and to his kingdom. Don't trust in anything in this world. Why? The fashion of this world is passing away. Like Sodom, this present world is going to be destroyed, and there will be a new heaven and a new earth. The kingdom of God is coming in all its fullness of manifestation. (PGM) We must keep that always in mind through faith. That is what Abraham and all these heroes of the Old Testament did.
The Example of Moses
Second, take a look at Moses. Remember, Moses, Abraham and all those listed in Hebrews 11 were people who lived in the Old Testament times, before the New Testament was written. We are living at a time of much greater revelation and light.
In Hebrews 11:24 we read,"By faith Moses. . ." Notice, Moses also had this powerful scope of faith. It is better than the famed Hubble telescope, which can only peer into the material universe, but can never transcend it. Faith is the only telescope by which we can see God.
"By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh's daughter." Being the son of Pharaoh's daughter was a high position in Egypt. Egypt was an extremely powerful world power at that time, so to be known as the son of Pharaoh's daughter was one of the most important honors Moses could have received from the world. Why did he refuse this great honor?
Verse 25 tells us Moses "chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time." The reason Moses refused was that God had performed a work in his heart, causing him to be born of God. As a child of God, Moses used the scope of faith to see the eternal realities of God and his kingdom, and that vision caused Moses to say, "I don't want to settle cheap for this type of thing. I have something infinitely greater than that." May God help us all to join with Moses in saying "No" to sin and "Yes" to God and to his will!
Moses chose God rather than the pleasures of this life. In the parable of the soils, we read that the third soil was characterized by the worries and pleasures of life and the deceitfulness of riches. What happened to the gospel seed that was sown in this type of soil? It was choked and stifled. If you are a person who is running after the things of this world rather than God, I counsel you by the mercies of God to imitate the example of Moses. Look at this world and its pleasures through the telescope of faith and understand the futility of it all. "Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!"
Moses carefully evaluated the pros and cons of what it would mean to be regarded as the son of Pharaoh's daughter against what it meant to follow Christ. He estimated, calculated and did a study, comparing the things of this world with the things of God. What was his conclusion? Verse 26 tells us, "He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt." Not only did Moses refuse the pleasures of sin but he also refused the treasures of Egypt. I am sure Moses, after much careful consideration, concluded, "You know, suffering for Christ is of greater value than anything the world can offer me." Isn't this what we read in 2 Corinthians 4, that our suffering produces an eternal weight of glory that far outweighs any troubles we experience?
Notice, then, the spiritual understanding of Moses. He refused the honor of being the son of the daughter of Pharaoh. He refused the pleasures of sin, which last only a season. They are not everlasting. And he also rejected the treasures of Egypt in favor of disgrace for the sake of Christ.
Why did Moses do these things? Verse 26 tells us it was "because he was looking ahead to his reward." That is what a faith life is. Though he lived in Old Testament times and did not have as much knowledge of God as we have, Moses chose to live by faith. He saw something everlasting, something of infinite value--the weight of glory--that far outweighs everything else. Thus, when he looked at the pleasures of sin, the treasures of Egypt, and the honor of being called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, he said, "No--no, no, no, no, no!" He was like the man of Matthew 13 who saw the stone in the field. Everyone else who saw it agreed that it was a stone, but to this man, the stone was the greatest treasure he had ever seen. Why did he say that? His eyes were opened to eternal realities. In the same way, God did a work in Moses, and he was given insight and understanding into the treasure of the kingdom of God.
Verse 27 says, "By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king's anger." Faith results in fearlessness, as John Newton wrote, "'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved." In 1 John 4:18 we read, "Perfect love casts out fear." That is what happens to a Christian. He fears God; therefore, he is delivered from every kind of fear, even the fear of Pharaoh, who represented the powers of the world at Moses' time.
"Not fearing the king's anger. . . [Moses] persevered because he saw him who is invisible." Not only did Moses start as a man of faith, but he persevered and finished as a man of faith. How did he do this? By seeing him who was invisible, meaning God. How did he see him? By faith. Moses lived his life by faith, always seeing God.
If we do that, then everything will be all right. Therefore, may God help us to follow Moses and Abraham. May God help us to say with Paul, "So we fix our eyes, not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal."
The Example of Jesus
In Hebrews 12 we find the example of Jesus Christ himself. In verse 2 the writer to the Hebrews counsels us, "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross. . . ."
Jesus Christ came into the world to die--to be crucified as a criminal, as a blasphemer. It was God's will that Jesus Christ come and die in our place. But as he moved to fulfill that destiny of God, what was Jesus looking to? God and his kingdom. Jesus was focusing, not on the suffering that awaited him, but on the glorification that would follow--the joy that was set before him.
Jesus Christ endured the cross for the joy set before him. His eyes were focused, not on the cross, but on the joy. Yes, he saw the cross with all its suffering and shame, and in the same way we see the reality of our troubles in this life. We must be realistic and understand that life is real, pain is real, and all that. But in the midst of the reality of the troubles of this world, we must fix our eyes on something that is of greater significance, which is the joy that is set before us.
Jesus kept a picture of that joy before him all the time. So he "endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." He came into the perfect joy and glory of heaven.
In John 17 we read the prayer Jesus prayed the night he was arrested. In verse 1 Jesus prayed, "Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son that your Son may glorify you," and in verse 5 he said, "And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began." Again, notice the perspective of Jesus demonstrated by these prayers. He was facing the cross. He knew he had come to die, and he knew his time to do so was imminent and inescapable. Yet he was ready to say, "Not my will but thine be done" as he prayed to his heavenly Father. He told his apostles and disciples, "I have to go to Jerusalem and this is what is going to happen: They will crucify me, but on the third day I will be raised." He understood all that. But he saw something more than the sufferings: The glory of being with God.
In verse 13 he prayed, "I am coming to you now." Jesus came from heaven to this world, and he knew that he was going back to heaven. He knew that although he would suffer and die, he would come out of the grave and go back to the glory he had before.
Therefore, just as Jesus did, we too can endure the cross and suffer shame when we fix our eyes on the joy set before us. We can do everything God asks us, knowing that we are fulfilling the great plan God has for us. What is the plan of God for us? It is a plan to prosper, not to harm us. It is a plan to bring us without sin into our inheritance--to take us out of Egypt and bring us into Canaan, a land that is flowing with milk and honey, which is a metaphor for heaven.
The Example of Paul
Like Abraham, Moses and Jesus, Paul also lived by faith. In Philippians 3:7 we read, "But whatever was to my profit, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ." Paul was speaking primarily of his own Pharisaic righteousness, of which he said earlier, "as for legalistic righteousness, faultless." In other words, Paul considered anything and everything of this world loss for the sake of Christ. By faith he had come to see the reality of Christ, of heaven, and of the kingdom of God.
Paul continues, "What is more, I consider everything a loss compared with the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord." Knowing Christ Jesus the Lord! This is the essence of eternal life, as Jesus said in John 17:3, "that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent."
So Paul says he considered everything loss compared with the greatness of knowing Christ Jesus "for whose sake I have lost all things," not sorrowfully, but gladly, with great joy. Remember the man who discovered the treasure and hid it again? It was with great joy that he went and sold everything he had so he could obtain the treasure of the kingdom of God. So Paul writes, "I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ and be found in him." Think about that. This is what happens when you see reality through faith.
In verse 13 we read, "Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind, and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal." That is the word skopos, which means goal. Like an athlete, stretching and straining every nerve, Paul will not be distracted or look back. He has only one purpose--to reach the goal. "I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." Paul's goal was heaven.
Did Paul arrive at his goal? In 2 Timothy 4:6-8 he writes, "For I am already being poured out like a drink offering"--he was speaking about his death in service to God for the Gentiles-- "and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." Then Paul writes, "Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day--and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing." In other words, Paul was reaching his goal. He was approaching the time in which he would be able to claim his invisible inheritance--that which was incorruptible and stored up in heaven, the goal that was greater than the pleasures of sin for a season, greater than the honor and treasures of Egypt. Paul saw heaven by faith, and it was very clear to him always. Thus, he would not be distracted by anything, but pressed on with total concentration, living by faith and not by sight.
Paul was living the Christian life, as he also counseled us to do in Colossians 3. In verse 1 he begins, "Since, then, you have been raised with Christ. . . ." Paul understood that we have been raised with Christ, seated with Christ in the heavenly places. We have been adopted into the family of God in Jesus Christ and our citizenship is in heaven. That is our reality and these truths, these facts, are perceived and understood by faith.
"Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above. . . ." In the Greek setting your hearts means to seek with intensity. "Set your hearts on things above where Christ is seated on the right hand of God."
Then Paul says, "Set your minds on things above and not on earthly things." Christians, we need to have our minds renewed. This is not some kind of emotionalism. This is intellectual enterprise. The Christian life involves intellectual enterprise. "For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory."
Living the Christian Life
Jesus Christ himself gave us counsel how we must live. In Matthew 6:19 we read, "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth. . . ." Why shouldn't we lay up treasures on earth? Because earthly treasures are corruptible, perishable. They will fade and be destroyed. Like Sodom and Gomorrah, this world and everything in it will be destroyed. The fashion of this world is passing away because it is affected by sin. God is going to destroy all these things, and he is going to create a new heaven and a new earth wherein dwell righteousness. We are fools if we lay up treasure on earth.
The unbeliever has no other alternative. Remember that expression, "He who dies with the most toys wins"? That is what an unbeliever thinks because he cannot see the kingdom of God. He is nearsighted and cannot see far. The only thing he can do is make a lot of money and store up treasure on earth.
But Jesus said,"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth. . . ." Just think about Paul, Peter, or Jesus himself. How wealthy were they? Yet they lived the best possible life. So Jesus counsels us, "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matt. 6:19-21).
Jesus, Paul and Peter were always speaking wonderful things about heaven. Why? Because their hearts were there. They did not put their hope in this world. Our calling is an upward calling, a heavenly calling. Before, we were like pigs, stooped down, running after the things of this world with a continuing lust for more. We were enslaved, but all of a sudden God did a work in us and we were straightened out. Remember that woman who was bent over for eighteen years? When she met Jesus Christ, the man from heaven, he straightened her out so she could focus toward heaven, not earth.
Dealing with Suffering
In Matthew 6:21 we read, "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." If you live seeing through the telescope of faith, if you can see God and the eternal realities moment-by-moment, on a daily basis, then you can deal with whatever sufferings and troubles comes your way.
In Hebrews 11, beginning with verse 35 we read about Christians who lived in this way: "Others were tortured and refused to be released so that they might gain a better resurrection." Isn't that interesting? We seek to live one day more. By whatever means, we usually want to extend this present life. But these people refused to be released. Why? So that they might gain what a better resurrection.
The writer continues, "Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated--the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground."
How did these people endure all these troubles? By faith. That is what faith will do. That is what seeing him who is invisible will do. And so the writer concludes, "These were all commended for their faith" (vv. 35-39).
What about you? If your spiritual eyes have been opened, if you have been regenerated by the Spirit of God, if you have been given faith to see the invisible, everlasting realities of our triune God and his eternal kingdom, then you can look at your sufferings and know that everything will be all right. You will be enabled to say that these trials are momentary and insignificant.
But let me also warn you to be very careful not to be distracted by the worries of life, the deceitfulness of riches, and the pleasures of this life. Distractions will come to you every day in so many forms. Just turn on the television or radio--there is distraction. There are distractions everywhere to trip you up and cause you to stumble.
But remember what Paul said? "Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus."
Additionally, we must always keep in in mind that the fashion and form of this world is passing away. There is a new world coming, with a new world order, as we read in Revelation 21:1-4:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."
How certain will this be? John continued, "He who was seated on the throne said, 'I am making everything new!' Then he said, 'Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true'" (Rev. 21:5).
The Example of Stephen
In conclusion, consider the example of the Stephen, the first Christian martyr. He was a great witness for the gospel, which the Jews did not like, so they arrested him, tried him, and dragged him out to be stoned. But as Stephen was being stoned, God gave him a vision of heaven to sustain him. In Acts 7:55 we read, "But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 'Look,' he said, 'I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.'" This is not seeing by carnal sight. This is real sight given by God to this saint. Stephen was being stoned--he was suffering jeering and mocking and pain--but at the same time he was given this profound understanding of the invisible world. He saw heaven open and the Son of Man standing to welcome him home.
Living by Faith
How, then, should we deal with suffering? I say, "Live by faith. Look into the Book. If we believe what God says, we will be able to look at our troubles and say they are momentary and not very significant compared to the glory that is going to be revealed."
Only those who are born again can have this authentic faith. What is the great Reformed affirmation? Regeneration precedes faith. That means faith comes after regeneration. Thus, if you are not living by faith--if you are not seeing heaven, if you are not seeing God, if you are not seeing Christ and loving and serving him--then the truth is that you are not born again. And if that is true of you, I counsel you to cry out to God and ask him, "O God, have mercy upon me, a sinner!"
May God have mercy on us all! May he help us to trust in him for all things. May we see heaven and earth, in that order, that we may join with Paul and say, "Therefore, I do not lose heart, because I have seen heaven. I have seen the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I have seen the kingdom of God. I know my body is wasting away, but that doesn't matter--to me to live is Christ and to die is gain." May God help us to live by faith and not by sight. Amen.
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Copyright © 1999, P. G. Mathew
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