I begin writing this Journal 11,600 kilometers in the air, on my way back from ministry in the Philippines and Singapore. God visited us! More later …
I weep as I write this introduction. We have witnessed a travesty in the court-mandated starvation to death and the dehumanization of Terri Schiavo. The culture of death has prevailed. Staggering! What’s next? The physically or mentally handicapped? The elderly? Those with Down syndrome? What of stroke victims? I shudder in fear at the consequences, not only from man but from God! May her death not be in vain! God forgive us!
With the death of Pope John Paul II we are in for some monumental changes worldwide, both religiously and politically. I believe they will have prophetic end-time implications!
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Biblically and historically, suffering has always been a part of God’s redemption plan. From every continent and in every century, God’s chosen people have experienced suffering, persecution, and martyrdom. How do we understand it from a biblical/Christian perspective? This subject has been on my mind for months! We begin our discussion on suffering with God Himself.
Suffering begins with the Lamb, slain “before the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). Suffering was in the heart of God before time. In Gen. 3:15 we have the first promise of the Gospel. God foreshadows the suffering of His Son in predicting the “bruising” of Christ’s heel and the “crushing” of Satan’s head in Christ’s victory at the Cross and the resurrection.
God’s first act of redemption involved suffering. An animal was slain to cover the nakedness of Adam and Eve. In the Old Testament thousands of innocent animals were sacrificed as atonement for the sins of the people. God only means for forgiveness of sin and for salvation.
Christ Himself was prophesied in the Old Testament to suffer and ultimately to die as the atonement for the sins of the world (Isa. 53:5,10; Zech. 13:6; Acts 4:27-28; Psa. 22). God chose suffering and death to magnify His glory and to display His great name and the perfection of His character—His holiness, His righteousness, His sovereignty, His love, and His justice.
God the Father took pleasure when He laid on Christ the iniquity of us all. He was so passionate for His own glory, and the vindication of His Name was so significant, that sin could not be ignored (1 Pet. 3:17-18).
Every time we take communion we are reminded of the suffering of Christ for our redemption. Acts 2:23 states that it was God’s plan to overthrow sin and to magnify His grace and power through the cross. We would never know the fullness of God’s passion for His own holiness and justice, nor the manifestation of His love, without the cross.
Suffering Is Promised
Jesus promised suffering when He was here on earth (Matt. 5:11-12). In John 15:21 Jesus predicted that “the whole world will hate you” and that “in this world you will have trials, tribulations, and distress” (John 16:33; Luke 6:22). He also gave the promise of a “great reward in heaven” for the persecuted. Therefore we should not be surprised when we suffer (Luke 11:49).
Suffering in the Acts & Epistles
Acts 14:22 states that we through “much hardships and tribulation” should enter into the kingdom of God. We are not to “think it strange concerning the fiery trials as though some strange thing [is happening] to you” (1 Pet. 4:12-19).
In Acts 1:8 we read that when we are baptized in the Holy Spirit we are “witnesses” of Him. The word used in the Greek is “martyrs.” Jesus, in promising the baptism, also promised martyrdom to the early church. They experienced what Jesus had predicted; they experienced what Jesus Himself had experienced—martyrdom! We too are promised the same (2 Tim. 3:12; Rom. 8:17-25; Phil. 1:29)!
The Purpose of Suffering
Suffering helps us identify with Christ
God gets the glory when we identify with His precious Son through our own persecution and even martyrdom (1 Pet. 4:13). The servant is not above his Lord. We are willing to bear to some degree what Jesus bore for us.
We are in the same war that Jesus was in here on earth. We are passing through enemy territory. There will be casualties, as there are in any war; indeed, it is a testimony to Christ’s present suffering (2 Cor. 1:5-6).
We become people of character through hardships. We become more like Jesus—we come to know Christ, not only in the power of His resurrection, but in the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death (Phil. 3:10).
Suffering deepens our faith
In the furnace of affliction, the impurities of our faith are purged. Faith, when tested, brings about perseverance and patient endurance (Rom. 5:3-4; 1 Pet. 1:7). Faith is stretched and God increases grace in our lives (James 1:2-3,12). Suffering makes our hope even brighter (Titus 2:13; Romans 15:13)!
Suffering enables us to comfort others
When we have gone through tribulations ourselves, we can better identify with others in their difficulties. God’s worth is revealed when His people endure suffering with faith. He is with those who suffer pain and ultimately death, and equips them to better identify with others who suffer (2 Cor. 1:3-4; Heb. 6:12, 13:7).
Suffering makes heaven more real
Suffering deepens our satisfaction with God alone and minimizes our satisfaction with ourselves and the world. We learn to live more by faith upon God Who is invisible (2 Cor. 12:9-10, 4:17-18; 1 John 3:1-3).
Suffering helps us identify with the saints of old
When we follow Christ, we follow Him and others in the path of suffering. Some of us have not “suffered” as others have. We may identify with the first 34 verses of Hebrews 11 that describe those who have experienced miraculous power and deliverance, who subdued kingdoms and stopped the mouths of lions. Others share in victories like Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jepthah. Some have had awesome “God” experiences, as did Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Deborah, and Elijah.
But the list does not stop there. In verses 35 and following, we may identify with those who were tortured, imprisoned, stoned, cut in two, or beheaded. Others were cast out of their homes and countries. They were afflicted, beaten, and ridiculed. They wandered in dens and caves of the earth, as the underground church is doing today. They are presently counted as dung, enemies of society, and hunted as common criminals and animals! Some are presently rejected as the filth of the world.
However, God says that they obtained a “good report” through their faith, though they did not obtain the promise. What a testimony! What an example. Whatever level we may be in at this moment—in the first part of Hebrews 11 or in the second part—we identify with our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. We rejoice with those that rejoice and weep with those that weep. The promises are the same for both! Calvary includes suffering, but it is not joyless (James 5:10; Heb. 11)!
Suffering spreads the gospel
The early church experienced explosive growth through much persecution. Stephen was stoned while Paul held his coat (Act 1:8; 8:1,4). After being converted, Paul himself was later stoned and fled to another city. There he preached the gospel (Acts 14:19-23). Just like the Roman soldier who saw the glory of God on the cross, many Romans at the time of Christ received a witness through the suffering of the Church.
There have been thousands of martyrs in Sudan in the last 11 years, many through starvation. Yet five thousand new churches are the result! The evangelical church worldwide is growing rapidly, especially in those countries where Christians are suffering persecution and martyrdom.
Persecution has fanned the flames of Christ in those countries. Today, there are an estimated 10-16,000 new converts added daily to the church in China alone and 74,000 daily worldwide!1 Even Jesus predicted that the Church through its persecution would be a witness. Some estimate that there are, on average, 470 martyrs daily (see Matt. 10:17-33).
Suffering magnifies God’s grace as sufficient
Even in martyrdom, saints have testified to the abundant grace of God. Satan will not have the last word. Satan tested Job by taking away his goods, his family, his friends, and his wife. Yet Satan was not allowed to kill him. Suffering simply confirmed Job’s faith in God: “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.”
That’s the confession of faith repeated thousands of times throughout the history of the Church. We have had more Christian martyrs in the past century than all the previous centuries combined, and yet the Church continues to grow as never before. Tertullian in the third century said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed bed of the Church.” So true! Stephen saw the glory of God—Jesus standing at His right hand!
God cares! He is not detached from the suffering of His Church. He suffers with it, even to the point of death. Jesus said, “I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
What Should Our Attitude Be?
We are called to suffering. It is our vocation. We need to prepare ourselves for it (1 Pet. 3:8-9; 4:1).
Rejoice—Jesus commands it2
I have not experienced rejoicing in the face of persecution. But some have rejoiced in suffering and even in martyrdom.
Polycarp was a martyr from the second century. While being burned at the stake he said, “Eighty and six years have I served Him and He hath done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my Lord Who saved me?” He was burned on the stake with no nails!
Those who suffer are to commit their souls as a deposit to God Who created them. He will never fail in His keeping power (1 Pet. 4:19). We are to rejoice because Christ suffers with us. He intercedes for us (Rom. 8:34-39; 1 Pet. 4:12-19; Heb. 4:14-16).
Rejoice—our reward is great
This suffering leads to glory! As we share in the sufferings of Christ, we will share His glory—the ultimate bliss of God’s presence for all eternity.
Paul says that the “weight of glory” far exceeds the “light affliction” that many suffer. The “spirit of glory” rests upon those who suffer (1 Pet. 4:14). We shall receive a crown of life (James 1:12), a crown of glory (1 Pet. 5:4), an incorruptible crown (1 Cor. 9:25), and a crown of righteousness (2 Tim. 4:8). It will be worth it all!
We are passing through enemy territory. Our destiny is not “here” but “there”. We will share in the magnificence, the splendor, and the outshining of God’s majesty.
No words can describe the glory of God. He Who is, shall openly reveal Himself. Eternity will not be sufficient time to enter into the fullness of God and to enjoy Him forever. We will see the face of God and live! We shall see God! We shall behold His glory.
Worship is the goal of Redemption! Oh, that will be glory for me (John 17:23-24; Rom. 8:18; Matt. 5:11-12; Luke 6:22-23; 2 Cor. 4:16-18; Luke 14:14)!
We are to follow in His steps … to deny ourselves, take up His cross and follow Him (Mark 8:34-38; John 12:24-26; 1 Peter 2:21).
How can we understand suffering—its meaning, its purpose, its goal, and our attitude toward it? Could it be that the responses outlined above are just platitudes, a pie-in-the-sky mentality to explain the inexplicable? Is it just a cozy way to satisfy ourselves and our doubts … an escape from reality? Have we been deluded and deceived? Is it a figment of our imagination, a hope without substance—a dream without the possibility of waking up?
If Christ is not raised, then we are most miserable—there is no substantive hope, nothing but a groundless faith untethered from objective reality. If all we have is the “here and now”, then we should “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
But Christ is raised from the dead! He is risen indeed. The resurrection of Christ dispels all those questions. The final word has not yet been spoken in this life. Suffering does have meaning and does have an ultimate end, even in martyrdom.
The dead in Christ shall rise from the grave. We shall receive a new body—a celestial one to accommodate heaven and eternity. We shall bear the image of the heavenly. This mortal must put on immortality. This corruptible will put on incorruption (1 Cor. 15:12-58).
Death has been conquered. The grave has been emptied with a divine interruption—a shout from heaven! Our victory is in the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ. We shall overcome.
When the final number has been completed, God will avenge the blood of the martyrs. Until then, the cry of the martyrs and of His suffering Church down through the centuries continues to painfully grieve the heart of God. One day He will answer them with justice (Rev. 5:8). Finally, the meek shall inherit the earth and the righteous shall inherit the land (Matt. 5:5).
So then, we can rejoice in suffering like Jesus, Who for the joy that was set before Him endured the Cross, despising the shame of it. He knew that the cross would vindicate God’s holiness and gain the final victory over sin, the world, and the devil. He knew that He would sit down at the right hand of the Father, trading suffering and shame for glory and exaltation!
We too look forward to that day with great anticipation. “It will be worth it all, when we see Jesus and God face to face!”
I just returned home after two weeks in the Philippines and Singapore. I preached in the chapels and taught in a combined class at Asia Pacific Theological Seminary in Baguio City, a 40-minute flight from Manila. I preached in a local church about 4 hours from Baguio and then preached and taught at the North Ilocandia District Council for three days in northern Philippines. I then flew to Singapore and spoke four times, once on Saturday night and three times on Sunday.
The Lord’s presence was manifested on all those occasions! His gentle yet strong Spirit descended upon us. We were honored as we welcomed the Spirit’s presence! Oh, the graciousness of our God—plenteous in mercy … full of grace. To God be the glory!
Thank you for your partnership and your prayers! The Lord protected us during the many hours on the Filipino roads and gave me physical strength for these demanding days. He blessed us with spiritual empowerment and wisdom for the challenge of sharing His life and message!
We are honored and humbled by your kindness and liberality in sharing with us the passion of our hearts—to preach and reflect the glory of God with pastors, leaders, and the lost here and in other parts of the world. We also deeply appreciate your prayers! Know that you are also in our prayers as you seek the Lord and His glory to fulfill His destiny in your lives.
Reuben & Carmen Sequeira