Divine Discipline for the Christian

As Christians living in the dispensation of the church age, we are not under the Mosaic Law as the rule for life (Rom 6:14; Heb 8:13), but are under the Law of Christ (1 Cor 9:21; Gal 6:2). Israelites, living under the Mosaic Law were promised physical blessings if they obeyed the Lord’s directives (Deut 28:1-14), and physical curses if they disobeyed (Deut 28:15-68). For Christians, our blessings from the Lord can be physical (1 Tim 6:17-19), but are primarily spiritual in nature (Eph 1:3). And we are not said to be cursed when we disobey, but we do come under God’s discipline (Heb 12:5-11), and this because ongoing sin impairs our walk with Him and stunts our spiritual growth.

As God’s children, He has equipped us with the knowledge and power to live righteously (2 Tim 3:16-17; Tit 2:11-14; 2 Pet 1:2-3). Daily sin is handled by means of confession directly to the Lord, who always forgives (1 John 1:9). However, unconfessed sin and failure to advance spiritually can bring God’s discipline. He loves us enough not to leave us where we are, and desires that we advance to spiritual maturity (Heb 6:1; cf., 1 Cor 14:20; Eph 4:11-13). This means we learn to deal with our sin based on His resources (so that we sin less), and pursue the Christian virtues He desires to see in us.

Hebrews 12:4-11 is a key passage related to God’s discipline in the life of a Christian. In the letter, the writer states, “You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin” (Heb 12:4). According to Zane Hodges, “By ‘sin’ the author probably primarily meant that of ‘sinful men’ who opposed them, but doubtless also had their own sin in mind, which they had to resist in order to maintain a steadfast Christian profession.”[1] Biblically, we should personally strive against committing sin; however, the reality is that we do not. Some of us barely struggle at all. Where we break down in our personal efforts, God will work in and around us to help us grow. It is written, “You have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him; 6 for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives’” (Heb 12:5-6).

Divine DisciplineIn these verses, the writer uses the Greek word for an adult son (υἱός huios) and not that of a newborn (βρέφος brephos) or young child (παιδίον paidion). According to Warren Wiersbe, “A parent who would repeatedly chasten an infant child would be considered a monster. God deals with us as adult sons because we have been adopted and given an adult standing in His family (see Rom 8:14–18; Gal 4:1–7). The fact that the Father chastens us is proof that we are maturing, and it is the means by which we can mature even more.”[2] The noun (παιδεία paideia) in Hebrews 12:5 refers to the process whereby adult children are groomed for holy living. It is “the act of providing guidance for responsible living, upbringing, training, instruction, [which] is attained by discipline, correction, of the holy discipline of a fatherly God.”[3] The verb (παιδεύω paideuo) in Hebrews 12:6 means “to provide instruction for informed and responsible living, educate…to assist in the development of a person’s ability to make appropriate choices, practice discipline”[4] Wiersbe states:

Chastening is the evidence of the Father’s love. Satan wants us to believe that the difficulties of life are proof that God does not love us, but just the opposite is true. Sometimes God’s chastening is seen in His rebukes from the Word or from circumstances. At other times He shows His love by punishing (“the Lord…scourgeth”) us with some physical suffering. Whatever the experience, we can be sure that His chastening hand is controlled by His loving heart. The Father does not want us to be pampered babies; He wants us to become mature adult sons and daughters who can be trusted with the responsibilities of life.[5]

As Christians, we must learn to expect God to discipline us, as He uses His Word and the hardships of life to mold our characters. God’s discipline is a sign of His love for us, and “It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” (Heb 12:7). MacDonald states, “when testings come to us, we should realize that God is treating us as sons. In any normal father-son relationship, the father trains his son because he loves him and wants the best for him. God loves us too much to let us develop naturally.”[6]

And God does not discipline the devil’s children, but He does discipline His own; for “if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons” (Heb 12:8). There may be times when unbelievers get away with certain sins and even seem to enjoy the blessings of this life without hardship (Psa 73:1-12). But this is not so with God’s children, as He desires greater blessings for us, both in time and eternity. The wise gardener never spends her time pruning the neighbor’s weeds, but only her roses, and this because she desires greater beauty from them.

God’s loving discipline is consistent with that of a good father who loves his children and trains them in righteous living. For “we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness” (Heb 12:9-10). God’s desire is to refine us into the godly persons He wants us to be. By means of discipline, He seeks to burn away the dross of weak character and sinful habits and to refine those golden qualities He wants to see in us; the godly qualities that make us better. God always disciplines us for our good, that “we may share in His holiness” (Heb 12:10). According to John Jowett:

The purpose of God’s chastening is not punitive but creative. He chastens “that we may share His holiness.” The phrase “that we may share” has direction in it, and the direction points toward a purified and beautified life. The fire which is kindled is not a bonfire, blazing heedlessly and unguardedly, and consuming precious things; it is a refiner’s fire, and the Refiner sits by it, and He is firmly and patiently and gently bringing holiness out of carelessness and stability out of weakness. God is always creating even when He is using the darker means of grace. He is producing the fruits and flowers of the Spirit. His love is always in quest of lovely things.[7]

Divine ViewpointAs growing believers, we must learn to operate by divine viewpoint and live above the daily grind of life with all its difficulties and hardships. When we operate by divine viewpoint and live by faith, we can be thankful for God’s loving work in our lives which, over time, yields godly fruit in the lives of His humble and obedient children. It is by divine viewpoint that we realize, “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful” (Heb 12:11a). It is the natural proclivity of a person to maximize joy and minimize sorrow, and the Christian is no exception. We must never think the absence of joy means the absence of God, for though we often praise Him in the heights, He is with us in the valleys (Psa 23:4), and it is there His work is most impactful. And when God’s discipline has taken its course, when we “have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Heb 12:11b). It’s always the afterwards that matters most to God, for when the Pruner has done His work in cutting away useless branches that bear no fruit, the benefit is a harvest of right living.

As God’s children, He expects us to live holy and righteous lives that conform to His will (Tit 2:11-14; 1 Pet 1:15-16). When we sin, we can be restored to fellowship with God by means of confession (1 John 1:9). If we fail to confess our sins, and choose a sinful lifestyle, we put ourselves in real danger of knowing God’s discipline. The wise believer accepts God’s correction. The psalmist wrote, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes” (Psa 119:71), and later said, “I know, O LORD, that Your judgments are righteous, and that in faithfulness You have afflicted me” (Psa 119:75).

Suffering is sometimes removed after the believer confesses his/her sin to God (1 John 1:9). However, sometimes God leaves the suffering, which means His corrective suffering becomes perfective suffering to help us grow spiritually. In corrective suffering, we are outside God’s will and are governed by our sin nature and human viewpoint, which cannot sustain the believer in times of trouble. But when we confess our sin to God (1 John 1:9), any residual suffering can be dealt with as we are filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18), walking by means of the Spirit (Gal 5:16), and living by faith (Heb 10:38; 11:6).

The Sin Unto Death

There is a point when a believer can sin and there’s no recovery. When that happens, God will bring His child home. The apostle John wrote, “If anyone sees his [Christian] brother committing a sin that does not bring death, he should ask, and God will give life to him—to those who commit sin that doesn’t bring death. There is sin that brings death. I am not saying he should pray about that” (1 John 5:16 CSB). It happens from time to time that a Christian will see another Christian “committing a sin.” The apostle John distinguished two kinds of sin in the life of the Christian: the “sin that does not bring death” and the “sin that brings death” (1 John 5:16-17). The “sin that does not bring death” is any sin the Christian commits that does not warrant physical death from the hand of God, though it may bring divine discipline if the believer continues in it. John does not specify which sin leads to death and which sin does not, as the punishment is finally determined by the Lord.

SinIt was a terrible sin when Aaron led the Israelites into idol worship (Ex 32:1-6), but God did not call for Aaron’s death. Samson slept with prostitutes (Judg 16:1-4), and though he was disciplined, the Lord did not kill him. When David had an affair with Bathsheba and murdered her husband Uriah, it was a rotten sin that brought divine discipline. The Lord told David, “I will raise up evil against you from your own household” (2 Sam 12:11); however, the Lord also told David, “you shall not die” (2 Sam 12:13), but then disciplined him with the death of his son (2 Sam 12:14). Later, after David confessed his sin, he was restored to ministry (Psa 51:12-13). It was evil when Solomon worshipped idols (1 Ki 11:1-10), but even here the Lord did not pronounce death for Solomon’s sin. Peter argued with Jesus and tried to prevent Him from going to the cross (Matt 16:21-22), and later publicly denied the Lord three times (Matt 26:34-35; 69-75), but Peter was allowed to live. The apostle John twice worshiped an angel and was rebuked for it (Rev 19:10; 22:8-9), but the Lord let him live and used him in ministry. God’s grace and mercy is very prominent throughout the Bible, and He repeatedly gives us ample opportunity to confess our sin and turn back to him. We know from Scripture that “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness” (Psa 103:8). Because of this, “He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities” (Psa 103:10). Thank God for His great grace.

But there are sins a believer can commit that can result in physical death. The sin that leads to death, according to Paul Karleen, “denotes a sin habitually practiced by a believer, leading to God’s removing him from this life, but not taking away his salvation.”[8] It refers to the believer who has become so sinfully rebellious that God disciplines him to point of death and takes him home to heaven. There are references in the Bible where God personally issued the death penalty for one or more of His erring children who had defied His authority. Examples include: Nadab and Abihu, who disobeyed the Lord in their priestly service (Lev 10:1-3), Uzzah, when he touched the Ark (2 Sam 6:1-7), and Ananias and Sapphira who lied to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1-11). The Christians at Corinth experienced stages of discipline which included weakness, sickness, and eventual death (1 Cor 11:30). God’s discipline is never to condemn, which cannot happen (Rom 8:1), for “when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world” (1 Cor 11:32).

Under the Mosaic Law, God willed that sin be punished, but only some sins were punishable by physical death.[9] Sometimes God Himself executed the punishment (Lev 10:1-3; 2 Sam 6:1-7), and other times it was carried out by Israel’s leaders (Ex 32:19-28). In the New Testament, God does not call Christians to put anyone to death, but has delegated that authority solely to the governments of this world (Rom 13:1-6), or He does it Himself (Acts 5:1-11; 1 Cor 11:30; 1 John 5:16). Personal sins that impact only the believer are differentiated from sins that harm others. Divine discipline is only related to our time on earth, as there will be no need for discipline in the eternal state (Rev 21:3-4).

Many Christians rightfully suffer because of their sinful lifestyle (1 Pet 4:15), and those who persist in their sin will eventually die by the hand of the Lord. Such a death is the pinnacle of suffering in this life, but we should never conclude that it means suffering for eternity. All believers are eternally secure in Christ. At the moment of salvation, all believers are given eternal life and imputed with God’s righteousness (John 3:16; 10:28; Rom 5:17; 2 Cor 5:21; Phil 3:9). They are forever kept by the power of God and cannot forfeit their salvation (John 10:29; Rom 8:38-39). This means that when believers die—whatever the cause—they are guaranteed heaven as their eternal home. At the resurrection, the Christian is guaranteed a new body just the like body of our Lord Jesus, which has no sin (Phil 3:20-21).

Summary

It is possible for a Christian to sin, and to sin as badly as any unbeliever. However, unlike the unbeliever, God disciplines His own (Heb 12:5-11), and, if necessary, disciplines to the point of death (1 Cor 11:30; 1 John 5:16). This need not be the case. The Christian is called to a life of holiness (1 Pet 1:15-16), and this means learning to walk with God and do His will. Though we still possess a sin nature, Christians know victory because of our union with Christ (Rom 6:6, 11-13), and our walk of faith (Heb 10:38; 11:6). When filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18), and walking by means of the Spirit (Gal 5:16), we can learn to embrace trials and even rejoice in them (Rom 5:3-5; Jam 1:2-4).

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Audio Lesson: 

Related Articles:

[1] Zane C. Hodges, “Hebrews,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 810.

[2] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 324.

[3] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 748.

[4] Ibid., 749.

[5] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 2, 324.

[6] William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, ed. Arthur Farstad (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 2203.

[7] John H. Jowett, Life in the Heights: Studies in the Epistles (New York, Bible House Publications, 1925), 260-261.

[8] Paul S. Karleen, The Handbook to Bible Study: With a Guide to the Scofield Study System (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 359.

[9] There were certain laws under the Old Testament that brought the death penalty: intentional murder (Ex 21:12-14; cf. Gen 9:6), attacking or cursing a parent (Ex 21:15), kidnapping (Ex 21:16), habitual rebellion against God (Deut 17:12), sacrificing to pagan gods (Ex 22:20), cursing God (Lev 24:15-16), working on the Sabbath (Ex 35:2), being a false prophet and leading Israelites into idolatry (Deut 13:1-5), religious human sacrifice (Lev 20:2), the practice of divination, sorcery or witchcraft (Ex 22:18; Deut 18:9-14), adultery and premarital sex (Lev 20:10-14; 21:9; Deut 22:20-22), sex with an animal (Ex 22:19; Lev 20:15-16), incest (Lev 20:11-12, 14), homosexuality (Lev 18:22; 20:13), and the rape of a married woman (Deut 22:25-27).

The Psalmist’s Early Morning Devotions

Bible With Pen

So, there I was, up at 2:30 AM studying my Bible (my normal study time from 2-5 AM), when I read the words of the psalmist, who said, “My eyes anticipate the nighttime hours, that I may meditate on Your Word” (Psa 119:148). My heart leapt. I’m not alone. Praise God! I’d found an ancient soulmate; a companion whose study habits were similar to mine. Of course, I had to dig a little deeper to understand my new found friend.

The psalmist tells us he anticipates the nighttime hours when he can devote himself to thinking on Scripture. The Jews, like Greeks and Romans, commonly broke the night into military watch times (three to four hours each). The time mentioned here would have been “the last watch from two to six o’clock…[and] the plural indicates that the small hours were regularly used in this way by the psalmist.”[1] Earl Radmacher writes, “Accompanying the prevailing prayer of the psalmist was a meditation in the Word of God. Prayer and reading the Word preceded the dawning of the day and continued unto the watches of the night. That is the secret of getting a hold on God.”[2] Amen. The quiet time of the early morning, after a good night’s rest, provided an ideal time for the psalmist to study God’s Word. His mind was fresh and focused, and he could give God his best attention. His time of devotion renewed him on the inside, and transformed him into a godly character on the outside, as God’s Word was integrated into his relationships and daily activities.

Your Word has revived me

From other portions of his psalm, the writer explained that Scripture had a strengthening and revitalizing effect on him. He expressed this through repetition, saying, “My soul cleaves to the dust; revive me according to Your word” (Psa 119:25), and “My soul weeps because of grief; strengthen me according to Your word” (Psa 119:28), and “This is my comfort in my affliction, that Your word has revived me” (Psa 119:50), and “I am exceedingly afflicted; revive me, O LORD, according to Your word” (Psa 119:107), and “Sustain me according to Your word, that I may live” (Psa 119:116a), and “Plead my cause and redeem me; revive me according to Your word” (Psa 119:154). The idea in these verses is that this believer recharged his battery by means of God’s Word, which is “alive and powerful” (Heb 4:12). When faced with grief or affliction, he wisely cried out to the Lord for strength. The benefit was a knowledge of God and His Word, a spiritual life recharged, and a soul set free to walk unhindered with the Lord.

Tree Planted Near River

Elsewhere, David and Jeremiah mentioned the benefits of meditating on God’s Word. Of the blessed person, David said, “his delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law, he meditates day and night” (Psa 1:2). And the profit of a life devoted to thinking on Scripture is that “He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does, he prospers” (Psa 1:3). The believer who is rooted in God’s Word will draw vital nourishment from its ever-flowing stream. Jeremiah used similar language (Jer 17:7-8), and adds, “and it will not fear when the heat comes; but its leaves will be green, and it will not be anxious in a year of drought nor cease to yield fruit” (Jer 17:8). Here is a picture of spiritual strength and health.

May we learn from the psalmist and structure our lives in such a way that we devote ourselves to the study of God’s Word. I pray we see Scripture as the fuel that sustains the fire of our spiritual lives. And as His fire burns within, it will naturally glow for others to see, and will warm the hearts of those who need His truth, love, and goodness.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Related Articles:

[1] Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101–150 (Revised), vol. 21, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002), 191.

[2] Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald Barclay Allen, and H. Wayne House, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary (Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers, 1999), 728–729.

Finding Strength in a Crisis

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? (Rom 8:31)

Open BiblePerspective is critical to how we approach life and the problems we face. Invariably, we will all face difficult situations that will influence us to feel fearful; and though difficulties are inevitable, how we handle them is optional. When problems and feelings rise high, faith must rise higher, for God expects us to live by faith and trust Him (Prov 3:5-6; Heb 10:38; 11:6). We must not allow fear to overrun the command center in our soul (i.e., our volition). Though our emotions are turbulent, we must choose to be governed by wisdom and not feelings. We must operate on the principle that Christian stability is predicated, to a large degree, on the biblical content and continuity of our thinking. This requires a discipline of the mind in which we “destroy speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). This is not always easy; especially if we’re tired, or dealing with fatigue from the pressures of life. However, the alternative means we fall victim to the situation and that our soul is overrun with crippling fear.

David kills lion and bearStable thinking occurs when we manage our thought processes and insert divine viewpoint into the stream of our consciousness (Isa 26:3; Jer 17:7-8; Nah 1:7). Having a strong sense of God’s sovereignty is helpful (Psa 10:16; 103:19; 135:6; Dan 4:35). As growing believers, we should learn to manage our own thoughts, as confidence is raised when we connect them to God and His Word. David provides a good example of a believer or managed his own thoughts during a time of conflict; when he faced his Goliath on a field of battle. Prior to facing Goliath, God had worked with David to train him for that conflict. We know King Saul doubted David’s ability to kill Goliath, telling him, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are but a youth while he has been a warrior from his youth” (1 Sam 17:33). Saul was operating purely from human viewpoint, and so his thinking was handicapped. But David, operating from divine viewpoint, said to the king, “Your servant was tending his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and took a lamb from the flock, I went out after him and attacked him, and rescued it from his mouth; and when he rose up against me, I seized him by his beard and struck him and killed him” (1 Sam 17:34-35). During those prior conflicts—when David was a shepherd boy—he had no idea that God was training him for a future victory. David further explained to the king, “Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; and this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, since he has taunted the armies of the living God…The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will also deliver me from the hand of this Philistine” (1 Sam 17:36-37).

Though all Israel was afraid of Goliath, David was not. The difference was perspective. David saw the giant before him as no different than the lion or bear he’d killed when defending his father’s sheep. Because the Lord had helped David in those past situations, he was able to frame his current situation from the divine perspective, and this gave him confidence in the face of adversity. In all this, David managed his own thoughts.

Ideally, we want to manage our own thoughts too. We want to think like David, who said, “When I am afraid, I will put my trust in You. In God, whose word I praise, in God I have put my trust; I shall not be afraid. What can mere man do to me?” (Psa 56:3-4). However, there are times when our thoughts are cloudy and we do not see our trials as clearly as David did. (i.e., Job, Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, etc.).[1] In these moments, we are benefitted by a godly friend or leader who helps us orient our thinking in a crisis. Below are a few OT examples of difficult situations where a godly leader aided God’s people to help them frame their difficulty from the divine perspective. When the divine viewpoint was accepted, it gave courage and stabilized their fearful souls.

Example #1

Moses at Red SeaIn 1445 B.C., after the Israelite exodus from Egypt, Moses found himself standing at the edge of the Red Sea, watching as the Egyptian army approached with the intent of enslaving the Israelites (Ex 14:5). Moses wrote, “As Pharaoh drew near, the sons of Israel looked, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they became very frightened; so the sons of Israel cried out to the LORD” (Ex 14:10). Operating under divine orders, Moses inserted divine viewpoint into the minds of his fellow Israelites, saying, “Do not fear! Stand by and see the salvation of the LORD which He will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you have seen today, you will never see them again forever. The LORD will fight for you while you keep silent” (Ex 14:13-14). Fear is overcome when the solution is greater than the problem. In this situation, the problem was Pharoah and his army coming to re-enslave the Israelites. The solution was God Himself, who promised to protect His people and neutralize the threat. God kept His Word and killed Pharaoh and his soldiers (see Ex 14:22-31). The destruction of Pharaoh and his army caused Moses to rejoice, as he sang, “The LORD is a warrior; the LORD is His name. Pharaoh’s chariots and his army He has cast into the sea; and the choicest of his officers are drowned in the Red Sea” (Ex 15:3-4).

It’s noteworthy that there were times when God called His people to do nothing, but watch Him fight their battles. However, there were times when God required His people to take up arms and engage their enemy, and in those moments, He would fight with them, ensuring their victory. For example, David, when standing against Goliath, said, “the battle is the LORD’S and He will give you into our hands” (1 Sam 17:47). David then picked up his sling and a stone and struck his enemy with a deadly blow (1 Sam 17:48-49).

Example #2

Army Entering CanaanIn 1405 B.C., just before Moses died, he sought to strengthen the souls of Israelites who were about to enter the land of Canaan and face their enemies. These Israelites needed courage for the battles they were about to face. Like before, Moses sought to offset their fears by framing their situation from the divine perspective. Moses told them, “Do not fear them, for the LORD your God is the one fighting for you” (Deut 3:22). Because fear tends to raise its head over and over, Moses wisely repeated these words several times. For a second time, Moses said, “You shall not be afraid of them; you shall well remember what the LORD your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt: the great trials which your eyes saw and the signs and the wonders and the mighty hand and the outstretched arm by which the LORD your God brought you out. So shall the LORD your God do to all the peoples of whom you are afraid” (Deut 7:18-19). And a third time, Moses said, “When you go out to battle against your enemies and see horses and chariots and people more numerous than you, do not be afraid of them; for the LORD your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, is with you” (Deut 20:1). And a fourth time, saying, “The LORD is the one who goes ahead of you; He will be with you. He will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed” (Deut 31:8). Fear was to be the mental attitude of God’s enemies, not God’s people. Faith in God was the antidote to fear. Moses’ repetition of this truth helped God’s people adjust to the reality of their situation, and this strengthened them within.

Example #3

Assyrian ArmyIn 701 B.C., in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah’s reign (2 Ki 18:13), he faced a stressful situation when “Sennacherib king of Assyria came and invaded Judah and besieged the fortified cities, and thought to break into them for himself” (2 Ch 32:1). Here was an extremely stressful situation for the king and all the citizens of Judah. King Hezekiah could not control the attitude or actions of Sennacherib, but he had a choice to control his response. The king proved to be a wise leader who made good choices as he rallied his leadership team and took practical steps to fortify the city and its defenses (2 Ch 32:2-5). But Hezekiah knew external fortifications would not be enough. He needed his people to be fortified in their souls, strengthened within, so they might have the courage necessary to face the opposition. We learn that Hezekiah “appointed military officers over the people and gathered them to him in the square at the city gate, and spoke encouragingly to them” (2 Ch 32:6). Here is wisdom. Here is good leadership. Operating from divine viewpoint—which strengthened his own soul—Hezekiah used his words to insert divine viewpoint into the minds of his hearers, saying, “Be strong and courageous, do not fear or be discouraged because of the king of Assyria nor because of all the horde that is with him; for the One with us is greater than the one with him. With him is only an arm of flesh, but with us is the LORD our God to help us and to fight our battles” (2 Ch 32:7-8a). If the people of God’s kingdom were to be strengthened within, they would need to place their focus on God rather than the overwhelming problem at hand. Apparently, the people had positive volition and received his words. And the result was, “Hezekiah’s words greatly encouraged the people” (2 Ch 32:8b). Now they were ready to face the enemy. Now they were ready to win.

Conclusion

In each of these examples, God’s Word helped His people frame their situation in such a way that they factored God into their circumstances. Their confidence came because they accepted that God would be the One who would fight with them. Divine viewpoint always gives confidence when facing difficulties, whatever they may be.

For the Christian who seeks a stable mind, we must start with Scripture, as “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom 10:17 KJV). And we must trust the Lord when He directs us into His will, or provides promises to calm us. Faith in God is the answer. The Lord tells us, “My righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him” (Heb 10:38), for “without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Heb 11:6). God’s Word is true (Psa 119:160; John 17:17), and never fails (Matt 24:35), because He cannot lie (Tit 1:2; Heb 6:18). The proclivity of people is to look inward, outward, and downward. But God calls us to “keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. [To] set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col 3:1-2). Paul said, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:6-7). And Peter wrote, “cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you” (1 Pet 5:7). As those who confidence in the Lord, “we know that God works all things together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28). And God Himself has said, “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you” (Heb. 13:5b).

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Related Articles:

[1] See Job 10:18-19; Numbers 11:14-15; 1 Ki 19:4; Jeremiah 20:15-18; John 1:29; Matthew 11:2-3. 

 

The Lesson in the Storm

During His time of ministry on earth, Jesus was constantly teaching His disciples and developing their walk with Him. This development required testing. Some of the situations the disciples faced were turbulent, which exposed their weaknesses and provided teachable moments. Because of positive volition, Jesus’ disciples would, over time, learn His lessons and advance to spiritual maturity. A good example of testing in adversity is found in the Gospel of Matthew, which reads as follows:

When Jesus got into the boat, His disciples followed Him. 24 And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being covered with the waves; but Jesus Himself was asleep. 25 And they came to Him and woke Him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing!” 26 He said to them, “Why are you afraid, you men of little faith?” Then He got up and rebuked the winds and the sea, and it became perfectly calm. 27 The men were amazed, and said, “What kind of a man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?” (Matt 8:23-27)

Jesus on the Stormy SeaIn this pericope, we observe that following Jesus did not preclude the disciples from experiencing a turbulent storm that they perceived as life-threating (Matt 8:23-24a). God, who controls meteorological conditions (Psa 135:7; Jonah 1:4), used this storm as a means of testing and developing the disciples’ faith. Jesus, who was on the boat with them, was relaxed about the storm and “was asleep” (Matt 8:24b). But the disciples, in a state of panic, woke the Lord and requested He save them, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing!” (Matt 8:25). To their credit, the disciples had enough faith to cry out to the Lord in their perceived crisis. But though the disciples were concerned about the storm on the sea, Jesus was not; and when He was awakened, He addressed the storm that was raging in their souls. Jesus, standing face to face with His disciples on the ship, with strong winds blowing and violent waves crashing all about, said to them, “Why are you afraid, you men of little faith?” (Matt 8:26a). Here was a contrast of perceived problems. The disciples thought the storm was the great issue at the moment, but Jesus thought their fear and little faith was the greater issue. Jesus’ perfect perception of the situation, which kept Him calm, was used to correct the disciples’ misperception, which caused them to fear. The implication of Jesus’ words was that if the disciples had possessed greater faith, they would not have experienced fear and panic. After Jesus addressed the true problem, “He got up and rebuked the winds and the sea, and it became perfectly calm” (Matt 8:26b). Just as Jesus could speak and calm the raging storm on the waters, so He could speak and calm the storm in the disciples’ souls, if they would heed His instruction. Being amazed at Jesus’ power over this great tempest, the disciples asked, “What kind of a man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?” (Matt 8:27). Here, the disciples learn a deep Christological truth that Jesus, as the God-Man, has complete control over the universe He created.

FortressThe storm the disciples faced with Jesus on the sea would set a precedent for other problems they would face. Though the disciples failed the test at that moment—because of their little faith—they learned the lesson Jesus had for them as they witnessed His great power. Over time, the disciples would develop their faith and become some of the most courageous men in history. They would learn that faith in God and His Word produces a fortress within the soul that offers stability when life is upsetting. David understood this well and said, “When I am afraid, I will put my trust in You. In God, whose word I praise, in God I have put my trust; I shall not be afraid” (Psa 56:3-4a). And Isaiah said, “Behold, God is my salvation, I will trust and not be afraid; for the LORD GOD is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation” (Isa 12:2).

Dr. Steven R. Cook

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The High Calling of God’s Servant

As Christians, we are to consider ourselves as God’s ambassadors who represent Him in a foreign land. At the moment of salvation, God rescues us from Satan’s “domain of darkness” and transfers us “to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col 1:13).[1] Furthermore, we have a new identity “in Christ” (1 Cor 1:30), a citizenship “in heaven” (Phil 3:20), and a tremendous portfolio of spiritual blessings (Eph 1:3). But once saved, God does not immediately pluck us from the devil’s world. Rather, it is God’s will that we continue to live in the world under His protection (John 17:15), to be sanctified by means of Scripture (John 17:17), and to serve as His divinely appointed representatives (John 17:18). And we know He provides all our needs while we’re here (Phil 4:19).

The Christian who properly represents the Lord Jesus Christ will possess certain qualities that are useful to the Lord, and these are developed over time. We are to be aware that many people are hostile toward God, and will naturally be hostile toward His representatives. Jesus said “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you” (John 15:19). Though we cannot control the attitudes and actions of others, we must not allow ourselves to be controlled by them. This can be difficult. Rather than react to the sinful behavior of others, we are to respond as God directs. As Christians, we are to “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15), “with grace” (Col 4:6), and “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15-16). There’s no place for hostility in the Christian life, for “the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (Jam 1:20). This is how the Lord Jesus conducted Himself, for “while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet 2:23). Paul handled himself this way too, saying, “When we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we respond graciously” (1 Cor 4:12-13 CSB). The bar of Christian behavior is set very high, as it should be.

I must confess, learning to behave as the Lord directs has been an ongoing challenge for me. Though my grandmother led me to faith in Christ at age eight, there was little Christian education that followed. The ensuing thirteen years of my life were completely immersed in the ways of the world. Eight of those years were spent living in Las Vegas, which provided every opportunity for sin. By the summer of 1988, my lifestyle had eventuated in being homeless and suicidal. But the God who saved me at a young age humbled me through divine discipline (Heb 12:5-11), for “He is able to humble those who walk in pride” (Dan 4:37). Though I was a reckless son for a period of time, I responded positively to His discipline (Psa 119:71), and like the prodigal son, He graciously welcomed me back (Luke 15:11-24). God is good. In the summer of 1988 I surrendered to Christ, and my Savior became my Lord. I’ve been studying and learning God’s Word since then, working to unseat a lifetime of human viewpoint and replace it with divine viewpoint. But learning and living God’s Word takes time. Practicing God’s Word is where the rubber hits the road. It means applying His directives to my life on an ongoing basis.[2] A key passage of Scripture that has helped me over the years is found in Paul’s second letter to his friend, Timothy. Here, Paul writes about the conduct of the Lord’s servant, saying:

The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, 25 with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will. (2 Tim 2:24-26)

1054792All that follows in this article is an exposition of Paul’s statement. The Lord (κύριος kurios) is none other than Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Trinity, who added humanity to Himself and became the God-Man (John 1:1, 14). Jesus was conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary, and was “born of a woman, born under the Law (Gal 4:4). Throughout His life Jesus lived perfectly in the Father’s will (Matt 5:17-18). Scripture reveals Jesus lived His entire life “without sin” (Heb 4:15), that He “knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21a), and “in Him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5). By the end of His life on earth, Jesus said to God the Father, “I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do” (John 17:4). Jesus then went to the cross and laid down His life as a substitutionary atoning sacrifice for us (Mark 10:45). Jesus “died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God” (1 Pet 3:18). In this way, He was the “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). After His death, Jesus was placed in a grave where He remained for three days, but afterwards was resurrected (Luke 24:1-7), seen by hundreds of people (1 Cor 15:3-8), and afterwards ascended to heaven (Acts 1:9), from where He currently directs His children until the time of His return (1 Th 4:13-18). Those who trust in Christ as Savior become His servants here on earth. We are those who carry out His will, live honorably as He expects, preach the gospel to the lost, and teach fellow Christians to live righteously.

Paul uses the term bond-servant (δοῦλος doulos), which is used here in a positive sense of “one who is solely committed to another.”[3] In this sense, it refers to one who is surrendered to the will of another. In this passage, it is the Lord Jesus Christ that we serve, and it is an honorable place of service to the King as we adhere to His royal standards of conduct. The title of bond-servant was held by such notables as Moses (2 Ki 18:12), Joshua (Judg 2:8), David (2 Sam 7:5; Psa 89:3), Elijah (2 Ki 10:10), Paul (Rom 1:1), James (Jam 1:1), and Peter (2 Pet 1:1).

Paul follows the designation of bond-servant with the verb must (δεῖ dei), which means “to be under necessity of happening.”[4] The word denotes compulsion, obligation, duty. And what is the Lord’s servant obligated to do? Paul states one negative directive followed by four positive ones. The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, and with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition to the Lord and His people. This behavior is not something that comes naturally to the Christian, otherwise these directives would be superfluous. But the directives are helpful.

First, the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome (μάχομαι machomai). This word is used of physical combat in Acts 7:26, but here Paul uses the word to describe someone who argues with others, who verbally engages “in heated dispute.”[5] To be clear, rebuking another is biblical (Luke 17:3; 2 Tim 4:2), but quarrelling is not. Even when addressing a trespass in another Christian, Paul instructs, “you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal 6:1). Sadly, many in the world operate by a fist-in-your-face attitude that seeks to destroy the other person, but this is not the Lord’s way. As Christians, we live in a fallen world and it is natural that we will encounter others who operate by different values.[6] Satan, the current ruler of this world,[7] has his values and modes of operation, and these include sinful acts of violence which are intended to silence the opposition. This division of humanity will continue until Christ returns (Matt 13:36-43). Living in a fallen world, the Lord’s bond-servants must be willing to engage others in conversations of disagreement. However, we must resist the temptation to engage worldly-minded people by the practices they employ against us. The Lord’s servant is a diplomat, a royal ambassador who represents the King of kings and Lord of lords, and as such, must be characterized by His noble qualities.

Paul then shifts to four positive qualities that should mark the Lord’s servant. The first is to be kind to all. To be kind (ἤπιος epios) means to be “gentle, mild, kind…soothing, assuaging.”[8] Elsewhere, the word “was frequently used by Greek writers as characterizing a nurse with trying children or a teacher with refractory scholars, or of parents toward their children.”[9] And Paul states we are to be kind to all (πρὸς πάντας), which in this context pertains to our opponents. As Christians, we are to stand firm on God’s truth and not abandon our position; however, unlike our opponents who operate with hostility, we are to be kind. Speaking God’s truth is vitally important, and so is the attitude and delivery, which God uses to break down Satan’s strongholds in the minds of those held captive by him.

Second, Paul states the Lord’s servant must be able to teach (διδακτικός didaktikos). This word refers to someone who can handle God’s Word correctly and is “skillful in teaching.”[10] It is normal that Christians will encounter others with heterodoxical views (i.e., contrary to sound biblical teaching), and to be influential, the Christian must be able to communicate the truth of God’s Word accurately, and in a clear and concise manner. Of course, being able to teach does not guarantee a positive response from the hearer. Remember, while on the earth, Jesus communicated perfect truth with love, however, the majority of those who heard Him rejected His message (John 3:19), even though He verified His claims with miracles (John 12:37). Sadly, the majority of those who saw and heard the Lord rejected Him and His message. These will someday pay a price. In teaching, the emphasis is always on biblical content clearly presented. And though a teacher may be passionate, he/she should avoid histrionics.

Third, Paul says the Christian must be patient when wronged (ἀνεξίκακος anexikakos). This word is a hapax legomenon (i.e., a word that occurs only once in the Bible) that refers to someone who bears “evil without resentment, patient, tolerant.”[11] It means God’s servant puts up with the evil actions of others and does not retaliate when personally attacked. I think Paul describes patient behavior in his letter to the Christians at Rome. He instructed, “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone” (Rom 12:17a). Paul was a realist and knew that living in the devil’s world meant there would be opponents who would treat us in an evil manner. When such situations arise, we are to place the matter in the Lord’s hands, trusting He sees what’s happening and will act as our Judge. Being patient when wronged is not easy, as the knee-jerk response is to retaliate and attack our attacker. But Paul instructs, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom 12:19). Paul goes on to say, “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing, you will heap burning coals on his head” (Rom 12:20). As Christians, we must “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:21). Being patient when wronged means trusting God will dispense justice in His time and way.

Fourth, the Lord’s servant must respond to opponents with gentleness (πραΰτης prautes). The term may be defined as “gentleness, humility, courtesy, considerateness, [or] meekness.”[12] The opposite of gentle is harsh, brutal, or rough, and this we should not be. Unfortunately, many in the world see gentleness as weakness, but this is wrong. Remember, the Lord Himself was “gentle and humble in heart” (Matt 11:29), yet all the power of divinity was readily at His disposal. It’s not that the believer is in any way deficient in power or strength, but that he/she voluntarily forfeits the use of it, knowing that harsh behavior is nothing less than a bully tactic, which fails to recognize the other person’s right of self-determination. God does not force Himself on others, and neither should we. Others may not agree with our message, and we can shake the dust off our feet when we leave (Matt 10:14; Acts 13:51), but we have no right to ram, cram, or jam our message down their throats. Being gentle means we maintain composure in the face of opposition, mainly because we realize the opponent actually stands against God, the One we represent. We are to represent the Lord openly, accurately, and with dignity, but we do not have to defend Him any more than a mosquito needs to defend an elephant. We are to be gentle, knowing God will deal with His opponents as He sees fit, and the Lord tends to be very patient and gracious, until He’s not.

To correct (παιδεύω paideuo) means “to provide instruction for informed and responsible living.”[13] And who needs this divine instruction? It is those who oppose God and His people. The term for opposition (ἀντιδιατίθημι antidiatithemi) means “to oppose someone, involving not only a psychological attitude but also a corresponding behavior—to oppose, to be hostile toward, to show hostility.”[14] Experiencing opposition—even hostile opposition—should never be a surprise to the Lord’s servant. Jesus told His disciples, “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you” (John 15:18-19; cf., 1 John 3:13). Though sometimes treated with hostility, the Christian is directed to offer gentle correction to those who will listen. In most instances the opposition does not realize they are under Satanic delusion and enslavement, and the most compassionate thing we can do is to share God’s liberating Word with them. With gentleness—as well as kindness and patience—the Christian seeks to educate or guide the other person into divine truth. This instruction can include the gospel of grace (1 Cor 15:3-4) that leads to forgiveness of sins and eternal life (Eph 1:7; John 10:28), or it can refer to biblical teaching that helps the immature Christian advance as a disciple of the Lord (1 Pet 2:2).

BibleHaving conducted ourselves as noble servants of the Lord, operating under His sovereignty, we then trust that He will work in the hearts of those who have heard His Word. We know it is God’s Word that transforms others from the inside out. We know His Word is “alive and powerful” (Heb 4:12) and accomplishes what He intends. The Lord said, “My word which goes forth from My mouth will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it” (Isa 55:11). As Christians, we simply communicate God’s Word accurately and in a loving way, and then let it do its work in the hearts of those who hear it. I believe it was Spurgeon who said, “the same sun that softens wax also hardens clay.” By this he meant that God’s Word, which gives light like the sun, has different effects depending on the material exposed to it. The reality is that some hearts are positive to God (wax) and these grow soft when exposed to the light of His Word, but other hearts are negative to God (clay) and exposure to His Word only make them harder. We control the output of our message, but never the outcome. What the hearers—or readers—do with God’s Word is between them and the Lord.

Having done our part by following the Lord’s directives not to be quarrelsome, but kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, and with gentleness correcting those in opposition, we leave the matter knowing it is in God’s hands. And we know that the Lord is not willing “for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9), and to those who are positive, He will “grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 2:25b). If the heart is willing, God will grant the person the opportunity to repent and receive salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. John wrote, for “as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name” (John 1:12). Repentance (μετάνοια metanoia) means “to change one’s mind or purpose.”[15] This change of mind occurs when one hears the gospel message and favorably responds to it. Paul states this positively when he speaks about “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). Faith in Christ is the sole condition for salvation (John 3:16; Eph 2:8-9; Acts 16:31), and true repentance means the unbeliever turns from trusting in anything and everyone and trusts solely in Christ to save. For “there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Christ-on-the-crossThe gospel is the good news that follows the bad news. The bad news—from our perspective—is that God is holy (Psa 99:9; Isa 6:3) and demands absolute righteousness from us in order for us to spend eternity with Him in heaven. Being perfectly righteous, God can have nothing to do with sin except to condemn it (Hab 1:13; 1 John 1:5). God’s standard of righteousness is absolute moral perfection. This is bad news because we are egregious sinners in serious violation of God’s perfect standard. The Bible reveals we are sinners in Adam (Rom 5:12; 1 Cor 15:21-22), sinners by nature (Rom 7:14-25; 13:12-14), and sinners by choice (Isa 59:2; Jam 1:14-15). To further complicate the problem, we are helpless to solve the sin problem and save ourselves (Rom 5:6-10; Eph 2:1-3). Good works have no saving merit before God (Isa 64:6; Eph 2:8-9; Tit 3:5). We cannot save ourselves any more than we can jump across the Grand Canyon or throw rocks and hit the moon. But God, because of His mercy and love toward us (John 3:16; Eph 2:3-7), did for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He provided a solution to the problem of sin, and that solution is the cross of Christ (1 Cor 1:18). God the Son—the second Person of the Trinity—came into the world by human birth (Luke 1:26-35), lived a perfectly righteous life (2 Cor 5:21; Heb 4:15; 1 John 3:5), and willingly died in our place—as our substitute—and bore the punishment for our sins. Jesus solved both problems: 1) He lived the righteous life that God demands and committed no sin (2 Cor 5:21; Heb 4:15; 1 John 3:5), and 2) He died for us on the cross and paid the penalty for all our sins (Mark 10:45; Rom 5:6-10). The gospel message is that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-4).  Jesus died in our place, “the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God” (1 Pet 3:18). In order for us to be reconciled to God, we must simply trust in Jesus as our Savior (John 3:16; Acts 16:30-31). When we trust in Christ as our Savior, we are forgiven all our sins (Eph 1:7; Col. 1:14), given eternal life (John 3:16; 10:27-28), and receive the righteousness of God as a free gift (Rom 5:17; 2 Cor 5:21; Phil 3:9). This is good news.

As the Lord’s bond-servants, we are called to a high moral standard of conduct befitting the King we represent. We are His ambassadors to a fallen world. Our hope is that those trapped in Satan’s world-system will see their faulty way of thinking and living and “may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will” (2 Tim 2:26). Those who accept God’s message will know freedom and eternal life. Those who reject God’s liberating truth continue as slaves to the devil, trapped as an animal in his cage, always doing his will because it agrees with their own sinful proclivities. God has opened a door of freedom for them, if they’ll respond positively to the gospel. Those who reject the gospel continue as slaves to Satan, and this by their own choice. But regardless of their choice, we are to conduct ourselves according to God’s standards of expectation. As Christians, we “must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, [and] with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition” (2 Tim 2:24-25b). We are to “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15), “with grace” (Col 4:6), and “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15-16). There’s no place for hostility in the Christian life, for “the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (Jam 1:20).

Dr. Steven R. Cook

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[1] Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New American Standard Bible, 1995 Update.

[2] Later, when I realized I had the gift of Teaching, I began to teach God’s Word to others. I later learned this three-step practice of learning, living, and teaching was Ezra’s model, as he “had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach” it to others (Ezra 7:10).

[3] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 260.

[4] Ibid., 214.

[5] Ibid., 622.

[6] Some Christians are bothered by the fallen world and prefer hiding and pursue a monastic life of solitude. However, the Lord never calls us to hide our light, but to be in the world and let it shine so that others might see it. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16). But living in a fallen world is dangerous business and can be upsetting to the sensitive soul.

[7] Three times Jesus referred to Satan as “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). Other passages of Scripture call Satan “the god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4), and “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph 2:2), informing us “that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). Satan rules as a tyrant who has “weakened the nations” (Isa 14:12), and currently “deceives the whole world” (Rev 12:9).

[8] H.G. Liddell, A Lexicon: Abridged from Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996), 354.

[9] W. E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger, and William White Jr., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville, TN: T. Nelson, 1996), 263.

[10] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 240.

[11] Ibid., 77.

[12] Ibid., 861.

[13] Ibid., 749.

[14] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 491.

[15] W. E. Vine, et al., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 525.

A Divided World Until Christ Returns

We live in a divided world. I’m speaking about a division between believers and unbelievers, children of God and children of the devil. Jesus gave an illustration of this when He told the parable of the wheat and tares (Matt 13:24-30). Afterwards, when Jesus was alone with His disciples, they asked for an explanation of the parable (Matt 13:36), and Jesus said:

The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, 38 and the field is the world; and as for the good seed, these are the sons of the kingdom; and the tares are the sons of the evil one; 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil, and the harvest is the end of the age; and the reapers are angels. 40 So just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, 42 and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then THE RIGHTEOUS WILL SHINE FORTH AS THE SUN in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear. (Matt 13:37-43).

In this revelation we understand: 1) God the Son has sown good seed in the world, which are believers, 2) Satan has sown weeds, which are unbelievers, 3) both live side by side until Christ returns at the end of the age, 4) at which time Jesus will send forth His angels to separate out all unbelievers, 5) which unbelievers will be cast into the lake of fire, and 6) believers will enter into the millennial kingdom. We have here a picture of the current state of the world which consists of believers and unbelievers. The current state ends at the return of Christ when He renders judgment upon unbelievers and establishes His earthly kingdom.

Satan as ruler of this worldFor the present time, Satan is the ruler of this world (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; 2 Cor 4:4; Eph 2:2; 1 John 5:19). We are all born under “the dominion of Satan” (Act 26:18), into his “domain of darkness” (Col 1:13). Our spiritual state changes at the time we turn to Christ and trust Him as Savior (1 Cor 15:3-4). At the moment of faith in Christ, we become “children of God” (John 1:12), are transferred to the kingdom of His Son (Col 1:13), forgiven all our sins (Eph 1:7), given eternal life (John 10:28), the gift of righteousness (Rom 5:17; Phil 3:9), and the power to live holy (Rom 6:11-14). And, it is God’s will that we advance to spiritual maturity (Heb 6:1; Eph 4:11-13; 1 Pet 2:2), and serve as His ambassadors to others (2 Cor 5:20).

Are Christians called to make the world a better place?

As Christians, our primary focus is evangelism and discipleship (Mark 16:15; Matt 28:19-20), not the reformation of society. Christians are to be good and do good (Gal 6:9-10; Eph 2:10; Tit 2:11-14), and in this way, society is better as a result. However, the reality is we live in a fallen world that is currently under Satan’s limited rule, and God sovereignly permits this for a time. True good is connected with God and His Word, and His good is executed by those who walk according to His directives. But there are many who reject God and follow Satan’s world-system, which system is always pressuring the Christian to conform (Rom 12:1-2). A permanent world-fix will not occur until Christ returns and puts down all rebellion, both satanic and human (Rev 19:11-21; 20:1-3). Those who are biblically minded live in this reality. As a result, our hope is never in this world; rather, we are “looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus” (Tit 2:13). We are looking forward to the time when Christ raptures us from this world to heaven (John 14:1-3; 1 Th 4:13-18). This will be followed by seven years of Tribulation in which God will judge Satan’s world and those who abide by his philosophies and values (see Revelation chapters 6-19). Afterwards, Christ will rule the world for a thousand years (Rev 20:1-7), and shortly after that, God will destroy the current heavens and earth and create a new heavens and earth. This is what Peter is referring to when he says, “according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:13; cf. Isa 65:17; Rev 21:1). Our present and future hope is in God and what He will accomplish, and not in anything this world has to offer. As Christians, we are “not of the world” (John 17:14; cf. 1 John 4:4-5), though it’s God’s will that we continue to live in it (John 17:15), and to serve “as lights in the world” (Phi 2:15), that others might know the gospel of grace and learn His Word and walk by faith. This understanding is shaped by God’s Word, which determines my worldview.

How are we to see ourselves in this present world? In the dispensation of the church age, we understand people are either in Adam or in Christ (1 Cor 15:21-22). Everyone is originally born in Adam (Rom 5:12), but those who have trusted in Jesus as Savior are now identified as being in Christ (1 Cor 1:30; 2 Co 5:17; Rom 8:1; Gal 3:28; Eph 1:3). This twofold division will exist until Christ returns. Furthermore, we are never going to fix the devil or the world-system he’s created. Because the majority of people in this world will choose the broad path of destruction that leads away from Christ (Matt 7:13-14), Satan and his purposes will predominate, and Christians will be outsiders. And being children of God, we are told the world will be a hostile place (John 15:19; 1 John 3:13). There will always be haters. Until Christ returns, Satan will control the majority, and these will be hostile to Christians who walk according to God’s truth and love.

Love your enemiesHow should we respond to the world? The challenge for us as Christians is not to let the bullies of this world intimidate us into silence or inaction. And, of course, we must be careful not to become bitter, fearful, or hateful like those who attack us. The Bible teaches us to love those who hate us (Matt 5:44-45; Rom 12:14, 17-21), and we are to be kind, patient, and gentle (2 Tim 2:24-26; cf. Eph 4:1-2; Col 3:13-14). What we need is courage. Courage that is loving, kind, and faithful to share the gospel of grace and to speak biblical truth. The hope is that those who are positive to God can be rescued from Satan’s domain of darkness. We also live in the reality that God’s plans will advance. He will win. His future kingdom on earth will come to pass. Christ will return. Jesus will put down all forms of rebellion—both satanic and human—and will rule this world with perfect righteousness and justice. But until then, we must continue to learn and live God’s Word and fight the good fight. We are to live by faith (Heb 10:38; 11:6), share the gospel of grace (1 Cor 15:3-4), disciple others (Matt 28:19-20), be good and do good (Gal 6:9-10; Tit 2:11-14), and look forward to the return of Christ at the rapture (Tit 2:13; cf. John 14:1-3; 1 Th 4:13-18).

Dr. Steven R. Cook

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The Apostle Paul – Chosen to Suffer for Christ

Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. (Acts 9:1-2)

     Christianity, as it was spreading its gospel message of Christ and grace, posed a real threat to Saul’s religious tradition.  Feeling that the church must be stopped, Saul sought permission from the Jewish high priest to search out and arrest Christians in Damascus, a city in Syria, in order to bring them to Jerusalem to be tried before Jewish courts.  Little did Saul know that when he set his will against the church to attack it, he was attacking the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. 

As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” (Acts 9:3-6)

Saul on road to Damascus     Saul was completely caught off guard.  The word “Lord” in Acts 9:5 translates the Greek word kurios and was most likely used by Saul as a synonym for God, as Saul probably knew this was a divine encounter due to the supernatural “light from heaven” that knocked him to the ground.  In the OT, the proper name of God is YHWH—sometimes used with vowels as Yahweh—and is translated LORD, using all capital letters.  When the Septuagint was written around 250 B.C.—the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT—the translators chose the Greek word kurios as a substitute for the Hebrew word YHWH.  Though the word is sometimes used in the NT to mean sir (John 4:11; Acts 16:30), and master (Col. 3:22), it is also used to refer to the deity of Jesus Christ (compare Isa. 40:3 and John 1:23; or Deut. 6:16 and Matt. 4:7; cf. John 20:28; Rom. 10:11; Phil. 2:11).  Surely Saul was surprised to learn that he was talking with the resurrected Lord Jesus.  More so, by attacking the church, Saul learned he was attacking Christ Himself, who is the head of the church (Eph. 1:22-23).  Jesus did not ask “why are you persecuting My church?”  Rather, the Lord said “why are you persecuting Me?”  At the moment of salvation, a believer is in union with the resurrected Christ, and when one attacks a Christian, it is an attack on the Lord Himself. 

The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank. (Acts 9:7-9)

     Though there were men traveling with Saul, the divine encounter with the risen Lord Jesus was meant primarily for him.  Rising from the earth, Saul realized “he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus” (Acts 9:8).  The brazen Saul who had originally rushed to Damascus on horseback, “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1), ultimately reached his destination blind, on foot, and perhaps a little bruised from his fall.  His cohorts led him like a helpless little child to the city he intended to crash with waves of violence.  Once there, Saul “was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank” (Acts 9:9).   I suspect Saul was anxiously waiting for the Lord’s next instruction, since the Lord had commanded him to “get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do” (Acts 9:6).

Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and the Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Your saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.” (Acts 9:10-14)

Paul-Praying     Saul had come to Damascus to attack the disciples of the Lord (Acts 9:1); yet God’s grace was upon Saul, for it was through “a disciple at Damascus named Ananias” that God would heal Saul of his blindness and show him love he did not deserve.  The Lord spoke to His servant Ananias and commanded him to “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying” (Acts 9:11).  This verse gives us the first glimpse into Saul’s background, for we learn that he was born in the city of Tarsus.  More importantly, Saul was praying to the Lord at this time, seeking Him from the place where the Lord had brought him, a place of helplessness.  The Lord went on to reveal to Ananias that Saul had “seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight” (Acts 9:12).  It’s interesting that God had given Saul a vision of something that was certain to happen, involving the volition of Ananias, even before the Lord had asked Ananias to go and lay hands on Saul.  At first, Ananias offers fearful resistance to the Lord’s command.  Ananias was genuinely afraid of Saul, citing previous acts of violence against Christians in Jerusalem, and stating that he had religious authority from the chief priests to persecute the Lord’s disciples even in Damascus (Acts 9:13-14).  The Lord did not rebuke Ananias for his fears, but offered him kind reassurance. 

But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.” (Acts 9:15-16)

     Here is divine revelation into the eternal counsel of God, who revealed to Ananias that Saul was His “chosen instrument” (Acts 9:15).  The word chosen translates the Greek word ekloge which means to select for one’s own purpose.  God chooses—or elects—to salvation (Acts 13:48; Eph. 1:3), spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:3-6), holy and righteous living (Col. 3:12; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 2:9), and service for the Lord (Jer. 1:4-5; Gal. 1:15-16; cf. Acts 9:15).  Election is always the free choice of God, based on His sovereignty (Rom. 9:10-21), and never based of the worthiness of the object (Deut. 7:7-8; 1 Cor. 1:26-31; Rom. 9:11).  God chose Saul, not because he was sweet and lovely and doing all the right things; rather, the Lord chose Saul in order to demonstrate His grace, His love and His power.  As the “chosen instrument” of the Lord, Saul was to carry the Lord’s name “before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9:15).  Thank God for His sovereign grace!

The Lord assured Ananias … This man is My chosen instrument to carry My name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. Saul was to become Paul, the apostle to the uncircumcised (Rom. 11:13; Gal. 2:2, 7-8; Eph. 3:8), including kings (cf. Governor Felix [Acts 24:1-23], Governor Porcius Festus [24:27-25:12], King Herod Agrippa II [25:13-26:32], and possibly Emperor Nero [25:11]). The apostle, of course, also ministered to “the people of Israel” (cf. 9:20; 13:5, 14; 14:1; 17:2, 10, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8; 26:17-20; Rom. 1:16). How amazing that the one who persecuted Christians so violently should himself be transformed into a witness of the gospel—and such a dynamic, forceful witness at that![1]

     Attached to Saul’s divine calling were the Lord’s words to Ananias, “I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:16).  The persecutor will now be the persecuted.  Saul, who inflicted suffering on Christians, will now suffer as a Christian.  Saul had the pronouncement of a lifetime of suffering from the very beginning of his call to ministry.  Saul was no coward.  He received the word of the Lord and accepted his commission to Christian service knowing fully it would be marked by a life of suffering wherever he went. 

Paul and Annanias     Ananias went to the house of Judas where Saul was staying and spoke the words of the Lord to him, and Saul received his sight again, and after eating and visiting with the disciples for several days, “immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God’” (Acts 9:20).  Because of Saul’s conversion, “the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase” (Acts 9:30).  Even though the church enjoyed peace for a while, not having to fear their greatest persecutor, the Lord’s new servant would begin his life of suffering for Christ.

     Saul, who eventually came to be known as Paul after Acts 13:9, would serve three missionary journeys for the Lord and share the gospel with many who would be saved.  Paul’s missionary journeys started in Acts 13 in the city of Antioch and concluded in Acts 28 in the city Rome.  Between these chapters, Paul experienced much persecution.

     Paul’s life was marked by suffering and persecution from the time he was saved on the Damascus road until he arrived in Rome.  This was all in fulfillment of what was spoken by Jesus to Ananias when He said of Paul, “he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:15-16).  In addition to what is recorded in the book of Acts, Paul tells us of more sufferings he endured:

Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. (2 Cor. 11:23-28)

Paul-3     Paul knew suffering like few others in this world.  His suffering was the result of his service for Christ, as one who boldly preached the gospel message and taught others from the Scriptures.  Paul experienced hostility primarily from his own people, the Jews, but also from Greeks and Romans.  Apart from the external hardships Paul faced throughout his life, he also had “the daily pressure…of concern for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28).  Paul was often internally distressed over the church because he knew that Christians were in real danger of false teachers who might lead them astray from Christ and from sound teaching (Acts 20:18-32; 2 Cor. 11:13-15; Gal. 2:4-5; Phil. 3:2).  In addition to all that he suffered during his time of ministry, there was a special form of suffering that came to Paul, a “thorn in the flesh” as he called it.  Regarding this special form of suffering, Paul said,

Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:7-10)

     Paul had personally received divine revelation from the Lord, and there was a real temptation that Paul might get prideful over having received such revelation, so the Lord gifted him with a “thorn in the flesh” to keep him humble and effective in ministry.  It was unimportant for Paul to tell us what his thorn was, but rather that it kept him humble, which was his purpose in revealing his “thorn” to us.  At first, Paul did not want his painful thorn, and even petitioned the Lord three times to take it away.  God, in His great wisdom, denied Paul’s prayer request, informing Paul that He would give him the grace—or divine enablement—to cope with his new weakness.  God loved Paul enough to give him what he needed, and the Lord needed Paul to be weak, so that he would learn to rely on the Lord and not himself.  Paul’s pain kept him close to God.  The wisdom and greatness of Paul is seen in his response to the Lord’s refusal to his prayer request, for Paul declared “most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor. 12:9).  Such declarations are contrary to human nature, since our first inclination is to complain about the things that cause us pain.  However, we must fight against our human nature and live by faith, trusting God at His Word and believing that when He causes us to have pain—like He did with Paul—that it serves some purpose in us and benefits us as well as others.  This requires faith.  May we all learn to say with the apostle Paul, “I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).

     For Paul, pain and suffering were not anomalies that occasionally popped into his life; rather, they were a regular part of the fabric of his life and ministry.  Too often Christian ministers sell Christianity as a way to escape pain and suffering, teaching others that if they’ll only come to Christ and live godly lives their troubles will go away.  Such teaching is false; for “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).  The Lord Jesus stated:

Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man. Be glad in that day and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven. For in the same way their fathers used to treat the prophets. (Luke 6:22-23)

     Not every Christian will suffer for their faith.  Certainly there are Christians whom the Lord has blessed with a life of peace and prosperity.  However, when looking through Scripture as well as through history, suffering is more the norm rather than the exception.  For the Christian, joy is not found in the absence of suffering, but in doing God’s will and being found pleasing in His sight.  This requires biblical understanding and a lifetime of learning to walk in God’s truth (Phil. 4:11-13).

 

This article is an edited excerpt from my book, Suffering: A Biblical Consideration (pages 91-117). 

Steven R. Cook, D.Min.


[1] Stanley D. Toussaint, eds. Walvoord & Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983), 377.

Overcome Evil with Good

       The Christian lives in a fallen world, and in order for him to overcome evil, he must grow spiritually and live in regular dependence on God the Holy Spirit to sustain and direct his life.  The Holy Spirit will never lead the Christian independently of Scripture.  Learning God’s Word necessarily precedes living His will, as the Christian cannot live what he does not know.  Change his mind and you’ll change his ways.  After regeneration, the Christian’s mind is still filled with a lifetime of worldly thinking, which will cause him problems to the degree that it remains the basis for his decisions in life.  If he thinks like the world then he’ll live like the world.  Worldly viewpoint should give way to the light of God’s Word as the Christian begins to adjust his thinking and bring it into conformity with the mind of God.  As Christians, we are always in the process of “destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).  We do this so we will “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).  For the Christian, overcoming evil starts with a change in thinking that leads to a change in behavior.  Without solid thinking rooted in Scripture, the Christian will not be able to stand against the evil pressures Satan will put on him. 

       The Christian living in society sometimes faces tremendous pressure to conform to the values and behaviors of those around him.  Not only does the Christian face the external pressure of those who are weak and have given themselves over to Satan’s evil system, but he also faces the pressure of his own sin nature that has a natural affinity with the devil’s world.  Mic-2 If Satan were a broadcaster sending out his radio signal, the sin nature would be that internal receiver that is automatically tuned to its message.  There is a part of us that is corrupt and is naturally bent toward evil, whether moral or immoral, and we must be aware of this flaw within ourselves.  We are given a new spiritual nature at the moment of salvation, which is naturally tuned to God’s message and is receptive to the Holy Spirit.  The Christian’s new spiritual nature is continually in conflict with his old sinful nature, as these are in complete opposition to each other.  The Apostle Paul tells us, “the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please” (Gal. 5:17; cf. Rom. 8:5-8).

The old nature (which has its origin in our physical birth) fights against the new nature which we receive when we are born again (Gal. 5:16–26). No amount of self-discipline, no set of man-made rules and regulations, can control this old nature. Only the Holy Spirit of God can enable us to “put to death” the old nature (Rom. 8:12–13) and produce the Spirit’s fruit (Gal. 5:22–23) in us through the new nature.[1]

       Those in the world who have given themselves over to Satan’s evil system often demand that others in their periphery conform to their values.  Persecution often comes in stages and is defined as “the suffering or pressure, mental, moral, or physical, which authorities, individuals, or crowds inflict on others, especially for opinions or beliefs, with a view to their subjection by recantation, silencing, or, as a last resort, execution.”[2]  Evil men often employ pressure tactics of all sorts, including violence, in order to obtain their objective.  In fact, it was during a time of great persecution by the Roman government that the apostle Paul wrote to Christians and told them they must “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).  Satan was trying to destroy the early church and many in the Roman government were used by him to persecute Christians.  Many Roman officials demanded that Christians recognize Caesar as a god to be worshipped, and if those Christians refused, then they would be persecuted and put to death.  The Roman government did not separate state from religion, and if a Roman citizen refused to worship as the state mandated, that citizen would then be guilty of treason and could face capital punishment.  Many Christians living in Rome faced persecution because they refused to worship Caesar as a god, and the result was often torture and death.

     The persecution of Christians became heightened in the summer of A.D. 64 when the emperor Nero falsely blamed them for a fire that had burned much of the city of Rome.  The false charge unleashed the anger of many hostile citizens, and the fury of Rome exploded against the early church and many Christians died a horrible death.  Later, the emperor Domitian (ca. A.D. 81-96) carried out attacks against Christians and persecuted them as well.  Herbert W. Workman writes:

Some, suffering the punishment of parricides, were shut up in a sack with snakes and thrown into the sea; others were tied to huge stones and cast into a river.  For Christians the cross itself was not deemed sufficient agony; hanging on the tree, they were beaten with rods until their bowels gushed out, while vinegar and salt were rubbed into their wounds. …Christians were tied to catapults, and so wrenched from limb to limb. Some…were thrown to the beasts; others were tied to their horns. Women were stripped, enclosed in nets, and exposed to the attacks of furious bulls. Many were made to lie on sharp shells, and tortured with scrapers, claws, and pincers, before being delivered to the mercy of the flames. Not a few were broken on the wheel, or torn in pieces by wild horses. Of some the feet were slowly burned away, cold water being dowsed over them the while lest the victims should expire too rapidly. …Down the backs of others melted lead, hissing and bubbling, was poured; while a few ‘by the clemency of the emperor’ escaped with the searing out of their eyes, or the tearing off of their legs.[3]

       To avoid such persecutions by Roman governmental officials, the Christian had only to denounce his faith and say “Caesar is lord.”  Some might argue that it would have been better to give recognition to a Roman emperor rather than suffer greatly or watch family members be put to death.  However, the demands of Christianity (now, as well as then) are such that a believer can never worship a substitute for the living Christ.  When confronted with persecution, any compromise of faith is shameful in the face of those who have testified for Christ with their life.  The early Christians understood that there was never a time when they could deny Jesus as their Lord and be justified in doing so.  Just as three Hebrew children in the book of Daniel stood before a mighty king and were willing to face suffering rather than deny the only true God (Dan. 3), so thousands of early Christians where willing to face Roman persecution even if it resulted in their death. 

       Because persecution was part of the normal Christian experience in the early church, Paul knew there would be Christians who would be tempted to retaliate against their attackers and do evil to those who did evil to them.  Unjustified attacks will stimulate the sin nature within the Christian.  Because the sin nature is usually the first responder in evil situations, the Christian must be careful to exercise self-restraint and not act impulsively, but control his emotions.  The Christian must be governed by God’s Word and never by his hot temper, as the Scripture tells him to “be angry, and yet do not sin” (Eph. 4:26). 

Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord. (Rom. 12:17-19)

       It’s easy to retaliate and kick the one who kicked you, or hit the one who hit you, or curse the one who cursed you.  But this is not the Christian way.  Jesus suffered unjustly many times throughout His life, and especially during His illegal trials which led to His crucifixion.  And even though He was verbally reviled, “He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet. 2:23).

As children of God, we must live on the highest level—returning good for evil. Anyone can return good for good and evil for evil. The only way to overcome evil is with good. If we return evil for evil, we only add fuel to the fire. And even if our enemy is not converted, we have still experienced the love of God in our own hearts and have grown in grace.[4]

       The persecuted Christians living in Rome could face their evil attackers with courage because they knew God was in control of their circumstances as well as their eternal destiny.  Just as three Hebrew children were able to stand against the pressure of a Babylonian king and face the torment of fire rather than compromise their faith, the Christians living in Rome faced their attackers by trusting God and His Word.  By faith, the Christian has confidence in the face of suffering because he knows “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).  Even if the Christian should face death, he knows he will leave this world and come immediately into the presence of the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8), have a new home in heaven (John 14:1-6), receive his resurrection body (1 Cor. 15:51-57; Phil. 3:21), obtain his eternal inheritance (1 Pet. 1:4-5), and enjoy the reality of the eternal life he received at the moment of he trusted Christ as his Savior (John 3:16; 10:28; 1 John 5:10).  Jesus Himself stated “do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).

       Living in God’s will is not always easy, and it does not guarantee a positive response from those who follow worldly values.  The teaching of Scripture is that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).  Sadly, there are many Christians who suffer for sinful reasons and it is good that they suffer, if it teaches them humility and respect for legitimate authority.  The Apostle Peter tells Christians to “make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name” (1 Pet. 4:15-16).  We cannot stop suffering in this life, but “it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong” (1 Pet. 3:17).  We cannot control what other people think or how they behave, but we can control our response to them, and we can make sure that what we do is pleasing to the Lord by being obedient-to-the-Word believers.  In this way, we can overcome evil by doing God’s will for our lives; and this is good. 

       The Christian cannot control much of the suffering that comes into his life, but he does not have to be overcome by that suffering, as he can look to God and maintain faith in His Word.  Jesus was not overcome by the cruelty and suffering he experienced, but showed love and forgiveness to His attackers (Luke 23:34), and “who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).  Stephen, who spoke strong words of truth while filled with the Holy Spirit, prayed and asked God to forgive those who stoned him to death (Acts 7:60).  Paul and Silas demonstrated loving concern for the jailer who kept them in chains, sharing the gospel with him when given the opportunity (Acts 16:22-31).  Our lives may be vulnerable to the unjust pain and suffering caused by others, but we must look beyond the suffering and be willing to love even our attackers for the sake of Christ in the hope that they may come to know the gospel and be saved.  

Dr. Steven R. Cook

 


[1] Warren Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, New Testament, Vol. 2, 480.

 [2] Geoffrey W. Bromily, “Persecution,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 3 (Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), 771.

 [3] Herbert B.  Workman, Persecution in the Early Church (Cincinnati: Jennings & Graham, 1906), 299-300.

[4] Warren Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary: New Testament, Vol. 1, 556.

You Fight Like You Train

       The character of a person is sometimes measured by the difficulties he overcomes.  The warrior by his battle victories, the runner by his long races, or the climber by the mountains he summits.  Rock ClimberOf course, we all fight battles, run races, and climb mountains in our own lives.  Sometimes these are not physical, but mental, emotional or even spiritual. 

       Great victories are not accomplished overnight but require time, discipline and training.  There’s a saying among warriors that you fight like you train.  From that maxim comes the cliché, the more you sweat in training, the less you’ll bleed in battle.  We all struggle in different arenas almost every day, so the concept of fighting should not be reduced to military combat or a boxing ring.    The nurse’s ability to fight and save lives depends on her years of academic and practical training which prepared her for the conflicts she faces in the emergency room as sick and wounded come in for medical treatment.  The lawyer’s ability to fight in the courtroom depends on the years of training she received in law school as well as the training she gleaned from years of personal experience in the courtroom itself. 

       Every Christian is born on a spiritual battlefield.  It is the devil’s world, and Satan “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).  The Christian is called to resist the devil by faith, trusting God at His Word (1 Pet. 5:9).  This means learning God’s Word and consciously applying it to everyday situations.  It is through everyday practice that the Christian becomes proficient in applying God’s Word to his life, as it addresses marriage, raising children, friendships, social issues, finances, law, and other aspects of human life and experience.  We cannot always predict the difficulties we’ll face in life, and certainly we cannot always stop or avoid them, but we need not be overrun by them either, as we can be mentally prepared to stand firm in the faith.  The daily practice of learning and living God’s Word prepares the Christian for challenges, in whatever form they take, whether prosperity or adversity (Phil. 4:11-13).  I say prosperity or adversity, because one can destroy the Christian as easily as the other.  The first is a pleasant distraction while the other a difficult one.  Both can be used by Satan to get the believer to focus more on the things of this world rather than God.  Spiritual victory demands focus on God and His Word, otherwise defeat is inevitable. 

       When confronted with a crisis, the mind can be shocked and want to shut down due to sensory overload, but this is the time when the Christian should be the thinking on Scripture.  Failure to respond properly in a crisis can result in being a casualty rather than a victor.  The repetition of daily reading and thinking on Scripture helps ingrain God’s Word for when the Christian needs it most during a trial.  Constant exposure and repetition to Scripture is the key to learning, and we know we’ve truly learned something when we can apply it when under pressure.  The time we spend reading the Bible, studying under a good Pastor-Teacher, reading good Christian books, and engaging in good theological discussions all prepare us for when the disaster strikes.  I speak with certainty on this point, for if one lives long enough, trials will come.  I know Christians who collapse under minor disturbances such as changes in the weather, burned food, or a flat tire.  Because these Christians have failed to handle life’s little battles, they’ve set themselves up for major failure when the big storms of life come their way.  This need not happen.  The Christian can train his mind daily to think on Scripture and to apply it to the various situations that come his way.  As we grow spiritually over time, our little faith will become big faith, and little victories will lead to bigger victories in the Lord. 

       The storms of life are inevitable, but how we face them is optional.  As Christians, we have a choice to live by faith and apply God’s Word to our situations.  We do not always have control over the things that happen to us, but neither do we have to be controlled by them.  As Christians, we always want to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, [and] to please Him in all respects” (Col. 1:10).  By faith we can face a conflict, an injustice, or a hurt done to us, and be the winner because we handled it in a way that pleases the Lord.    The life of faith always pleases God (Rom. 10:17; 2 Cor. 5:7-9; Heb. 11:6).

       God is always with us.  He never leaves or fails us.  He is our Lord and He loves us more than we will ever know, even when the battle rages and it seems we are fighting longer than we can endure.  We cannot fail, and the Lord will see us through us through it. 

Dr. Steven R. Cook

 

When the Wicked Prosper

     When suffering, there is a temptation to compare one’s life and situation with others. The ease, prosperity and wellbeing of others is sometimes incorrectly viewed as God’s blessing to them and/or His discipline to you.  The presence of suffering does not necessarily mean something is wrong in the believer’s life and the absence of suffering does not necessarily mean God is pleased.  One can be completely in the will of God and experience great suffering (1 Pet. 4:19), whereas one can be completely in sin and be free from any form of suffering at all (Ps. 73:1-12).  Prosperity or suffering proves neither godliness nor sin.  

     Asaph was a godly man who sought the nearness of the Lord, but his righteous living resulted in hardship and lack of material wealth, which many of the ungodly in his periphery enjoyed.  Seeing the wicked prosper and live in ease almost caused Asaph to abandon his righteous living, and he wrote about this in Psalm 73.  Asaph declared, “as for me, my feet came close to stumbling, my steps had almost slipped.  For I was envious of the arrogant as I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Ps. 73:2-3).  For a time, Asaph was “envious” of the wicked because they were living lavishly in sinful lifestyles and seemed to be getting away with their sinful choices without any consequence for their thoughts or actions.  Regarding the wicked that Asaph saw on a regular basis, he stated:

For there are no pains in their death; and their body is fat. They are not in trouble as other men; nor are they plagued like mankind. Therefore pride is their necklace; the garment of violence covers them. Their eye bulges from fatness; the imaginations of their heart run riot. They mock, and wickedly speak of oppression; they speak from on high. They have set their mouth against the heavens, and their tongue parades through the earth. Therefore his people return to this place; and waters of abundance are drunk by them. And they say, “How does God know? And is there knowledge with the Most High?” Behold, these are the wicked; and always at ease, they have increased in wealth. (Ps. 73:4-13)

     As Asaph began to look at his own life and compare his suffering with the prosperity of the wicked, he began to question whether righteous living was worth it, saying, “surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and washed my hands in innocence; for I have been stricken all day long and chastened every morning” (Ps. 73:13-14).  To pursue righteousness and suffer while others turn away from the Lord and prosper can tempt any man to throw up his hands in frustration and ask, “what’s the point of living righteously if I’m only going to suffer for it?”

     I find the honesty of the Bible very refreshing.  What is noble is that Asaph did not stop with his questions about the righteous and the wicked, but took those questions to the Lord at His holy place in the sanctuary, and there realized that the final destiny of the wicked is terrible.  As a mature believer, Asaph came to accept the temporary injustices of life, knowing that the supreme court of heaven will eventually render a final verdict on the lives of men and determine their final fate and reward.  As a mature believer, Asaph concerned himself with the pursuit of holiness and left the matters of justice, both in time and eternity, to the Lord.  Asaph declared:

When I pondered to understand this, it was troublesome in my sight until I came into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end. Surely You set them in slippery places; You cast them down to destruction. How they are destroyed in a moment! They are utterly swept away by sudden terrors! Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when aroused, You will despise their form. When my heart was embittered and I was pierced within, then I was senseless and ignorant; I was like a beast before You. Nevertheless I am continually with You; You have taken hold of my right hand. With Your counsel You will guide me, and afterward receive me to glory. (Ps. 73:16-24)

     It was only in the light of God and His wise counsel that Asaph was able to see the wicked properly and to determine their final outcome.  Looking away from this world and fixing his eyes upon heaven Asaph declared, “whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth.  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever”(Ps. 73:25-26).  Asaph knew that the wicked may prosper for a short time on earth, but their lives were mere shadows compared to the substance of eternity that belongs to believers.  Asaph realized that “those who are far from You will perish; You have destroyed all those who are unfaithful to You.  But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all Your works” (Ps. 73:27-28).  The believer is to live in the eternal-now where he sets his mind on the Lord and lives every moment in the reality of eternity.

     Everything we experience in this life is designed to prepare us for the life we will come to know when we leave this world and enter into God’s eternal presence.  The challenge before every Christian, especially during times of suffering, is to view all aspects of life in the light of eternity.  We must constantly live in the eternal-now, never divorcing our current experiences from our eternal destiny that is assured to us who are in Christ.  The apostle Peter tells us “to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation” (1 Pet. 4:13).  The apostle Paul shares a similar mindset when he says “for I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18); for “momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).  Suffering becomes bearable when the Christian sees it in the proper context of eternity to which he belongs right now.  I say he belongs to eternity “right now” because as a Christian he possesses eternal life at the very moment he believes in Christ as his Savior (John 10:28).  Eternal life is not what the Christian can have, but what he does have at the moment of salvation.  However, it is only at the moment he leaves this world and all its sorrows and enters into the presence of God in heaven that eternal life has its greatest experiential expression.  The flow of time ceases at death, and all life’s sufferings associated with this world come to an end when the believer passes into eternity.  More so, at the end of time itself, God will put an end to all suffering and evil when He destroys the existing universe and earth and creates a new universe and new earth (Rev. 21:1).  At such a time “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes [believers who have suffered]; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).  Until then, we must look to the Lord. (Steven R. Cook, Suffering: A Biblical Consideration, pages 147-151) 

Dr. Steven R. Cook

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 Other Christian articles related to suffering:

  1. Bob Deffinbaugh: The Suffering of the Righteous and the Success of Sinners.
  2. J. Hampton Keathley, III: The Doctrine of Suffering.

Love Your Enemies

Love Your EnemiesJesus told His disciples to “love your enemies” and to “do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27). As a Christian, I’ve often wrestled with the command to love my enemies. It does not come naturally or easily.  Biblical love and worldly love are different. Worldly love is often couched in terms of affection or how I feel about someone. For many years I used to think I was supposed to have warm fuzzy feelings for my enemies. I now realize that’s wrong.  Biblical love is a commitment to seek God’s best interests in others. I don’t have to like a person to be committed to them and to seek their best interest according to God’s values. I can apply biblical love to everyone, whether it’s my spouse, my child, my brother, my coworker, or even my enemies. 

       The word love in Luke 6:27 is a translation of the Greek verb agapao. The verb agapao is in the imperative mood, which means Jesus is commanding believers to love their enemies. It’s important to understand that God commands our mind and will, but never our emotions. It’s impossible to command an emotion. Feelings simply respond to thought and action. I can have an imaginary thought and experience a real emotion. For example, I could sit in a room by myself and imagine an evil woman killing a helpless infant by strangling him to death. I could then imagine this woman disposing of the baby’s body and then going on with her life and being successful and prosperous and never being caught or punished for the murder she committed. Though fictional, this image evokes emotion within me. Anger is the emotion that comes as a response to a perceived injustice, real or imagined. My emotions cannot differentiate reality from fiction. They only respond to the thoughts in my mind, and when I have thoughts of injustice—whether real or imagined—I get angry. Emotion always follows thought. As I think, so I feel. 

       Loving our enemies has little to do with how we feel. If anything, we must love them by faith in spite of how we feel. We don’t have to like our enemies to love them. We don’t have to approve of their false beliefs, sinful lifestyle, or cultural values, but we are commanded to love them. Loving our enemies means that we identify those who hate us, and perhaps mean to harm us and commit ourselves to seeking God’s best in their lives. We love them by praying for them, acting in a Christian manner and speaking God’s truth to them when given the opportunity.

       There is no greater example of love than Jesus Christ. All that Jesus said and did was done in love towards others, as He was seeking their best interests. Certainly the love and goodness He displayed to His enemies was never based on their worthiness. Jesus displayed love and goodness when:

  1. Healing the sick (Matt. 8:1-4).
  2. Casting out demons (Matt. 8:16).
  3. Feeding the multitudes (Matt. 14:19-20).
  4. Speaking divine Truth (John 1:14; 14:6).
  5. Rebuking the arrogant (Matt. 23:1-39).
  6. Dying for sinners (Rom. 5:8; 1 Cor. 15:3-4).
  7. Providing eternal life (John 10:28).

       These are but a few of the loving and good acts of Christ. We are all naturally drawn to the pleasant things that Christ did such as healing the sick and feeding the hungry. Yet, in love He also spoke perfect truth and rebuked the arrogant, even if they hated Him because of it. Sometimes it is an act of love to point others to God by sharing the truth they need to hear, even if it exposes their sin and makes them feel uncomfortable. Sometimes people respond positively, but often they respond negatively. At one time, Jesus told the Pharisees, “you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth” (John 8:41). Later, after another discussion with the Pharisees, some of Jesus disciples came to Him and said, “do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this statement?” (Matt. 15:12). Apparently, Jesus offended some of the Pharisees with His words, and I suspect the omniscient Son of God knew exactly what He said and the impact it had on those to whom He said it. Jesus still offends people today, though His written words and deeds could not provide a greater display of love than what is recorded in Scripture.

       Being a Christian means being like Christ.  It means learning His Word and acting as He would act. Unbelievers are sometimes positive to Christian love and goodness, but sometimes they are negative to it, even hating the Christian for being like Christ. In fact, Jesus warned His disciples that they would be hated for following Him and said, “Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man” (Luke 6:22). This is a difficult saying and certainly one that should make every believer count the cost of discipleship. However, though there are times we will face opposition for our Christianity, there is much about the Christian life that is beautiful. There is a love and kindness in Christianity that the world does not know and never will, because it does not know Christ. Though we cannot say and do all that Jesus did, nor can we be as perfect as He was; yet we are to strive to love others and do good to others as Christ commands. Sometimes loving our enemies and doing good means being gentle and kind and tender, meeting physical and spiritual needs as they arise, but others times it means speaking strongly, rebuking, and even giving offense. How we behave in love depends on what they need to bring them to God. Love can be both gentle and strong. Grace means we’re doing it sacrificially for their best interest. Remember, Biblical love is a commitment to seek God’s best interests in others.

Steven R. Cook, D.Min.

The Lord’s Day of Vengeance

       Many in the world today look to gods and religions that are ultimately no greater than those who support them. Sadly, many who defend them often resort to violence when their theological presuppositions are threatened. Unlike those who feel they must rise in violence to defend their religious beliefs, the mature Christian knows that God needs no defense, for He is the sovereign Lord of the universe, the Creator of all things, and He never feels threatened by the activities of mankind. When people speak out against Christ or Christianity, Christians do not take up arms in violent defense of God. The Lord is able to defend Himself, and indeed He does. When men rise and take their stand against God, “He who sits in the heavens laughs, the Lord scoffs at them” (Ps. 2:4), for “all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth” (Dan. 4:35). Christianity is inherently strong, because it is God who supports and defends the Christian, not the Christian who supports and defends God.

       Unbelievers often attack God because they are totally depraved and reside in a state of spiritual darkness. Total depravity means that every part of man’s being (mind, will, and emotions) is corrupted by sin, so that his natural tendency is toward self and sin. Man, by his very nature tends toward evil. We should not think solely of the immoral man, but also of the moral degenerates who have substituted works-religion in place a genuine relationship with God. The Bible tells us men are lost, and the heart of man is wicked to its core, for “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, [and] slanders” (Matt. 15:19). It was not too long after the fall of Adam and Eve that “the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). The Scripture reveals that the heart of every man is bent toward evil and “the heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9a). Most Christians in America seem regularly surprised at the ungodly behavior of unbelievers in the world. This surprise is due to the poor theology that streams from our weak pulpits where ignorant or cowardly pastors fail to teach the dynamic truths of God’s Word that should give Christians a correct view of the world that helps them orient to reality as God’s Word defines it. Unfortunately, solid theology is traded for tinsel teaching set to organ music, theatrically presented with colorful lights, and an orchestra and choir.

       The world is an evil place, and those who have given themselves over to Satan’s evil system often demand that others in their periphery do the same. Failure to conform brings pressure and persecution. Persecution often comes in stages and is defined as “the suffering or pressure, mental, moral, or physical, which authorities, individuals, or crowds inflict on others, especially for opinions or beliefs, with a view to their subjection by recantation, silencing, or, as a last resort, execution” (G. W. Bromily, “Persecution,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, 771). Evil men often employ pressure tactics of all sorts, including violence, in order to obtain their objective. Paul wrote to Christians who were facing evil persecution and told them they must “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).

       Because persecution was part of the normal Christian experience in the early church, Paul knew they would be tempted to retaliate against their attackers and return evil for evil. Unjustified attacks naturally stimulate the sin nature within the Christian. Because the sin nature is usually the first responder in evil situations, the Christian must be careful to exercise self-restraint and not act impulsively, but control his emotions. The Christian must be governed by God’s Word and never by his emotions, as the Scripture tells him to “be angry, and yet do not sin” (Eph. 4:26). The Christian will face evil his entire life, so he should prepare for it. More so, he should ready himself mentally to respond as God would have him to respond, as a dignified ambassador for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20). And how should the Christian respond to evil?

Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord. (Rom. 12:17-19)

       It’s easy to retaliate and kick the one who kicked you, or hit the one who hit you, or curse the one who cursed you. But this is not the Christian way. Jesus suffered unjustly many times throughout His life, and especially during the illegal trials which led to His crucifixion. And even though He was verbally reviled, “He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet. 2:23).

As children of God, we must live on the highest level—returning good for evil. Anyone can return good for good and evil for evil. The only way to overcome evil is with good. If we return evil for evil, we only add fuel to the fire. And even if our enemy is not converted, we have still experienced the love of God in our own hearts and have grown in grace. (Warren Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary: New Testament, Vol. 1, 556)

       As Christians, we cannot stop the injustice or violence that often comes our way, but we can control our response to it by thinking and living biblically. I cannot help but think of Stephen who, when being falsely accused and stoned by his attackers, cried out to the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” and then prayed for his attackers, saying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:59-60). God sovereignly controlled the circumstances of Stephen’s martyrdom, and Stephen glorified the Lord by facing his death with an attitude of faith and love, looking to the Lord and trusting Him in the face of violent opposition.

       By faith, the Christian has confidence in the face of suffering because he knows “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose”(Rom. 8:28). Even if the Christian should face violent death, he knows he will leave this world and come immediately into the presence of the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8), have a new home in heaven (John 14:1-6), receive his resurrection body (1 Cor. 15:51-57; Phil. 3:21), obtain his eternal inheritance (1 Pet. 1:4-5), and enjoy the reality of the eternal life he received at the moment of he trusted Christ as his Savior (John 3:16; 10:28; 1 John 5:10). Jesus Himself stated “do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).

       Living in God’s will is not always easy, and it does not guarantee a positive response from those who follow worldly values. The teaching of Scripture is that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). Sadly, there are many Christians who suffer for sinful reasons and it is good that they suffer, if it teaches them humility and respect for legitimate authority. The Apostle Peter tells Christians to “make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name” (1 Pet. 4:15-16). We cannot stop suffering in this life, but “it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong” (1 Pet. 3:17). We cannot control what other people think or how they behave, but we can control our response to them, and we can make sure that what we do is pleasing to the Lord by being obedient-to-the-Word believers. In this way, we can overcome evil by doing God’s will for our lives; and this is good.

       The Christian cannot control much of the suffering that comes into his life, but he does not have to be overcome by that suffering, as he can look to God and maintain faith in His Word. Jesus was not overcome by the cruelty and suffering he endured, but showed love and forgiveness to His attackers (Luke 23:34), and “who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). Stephen, who spoke strong words of truth while filled with the Holy Spirit, prayed and asked God to forgive those who were stoning him (Acts 7:60). Paul and Silas demonstrated loving concern for the jailer who kept them in chains, sharing the gospel with him when given the opportunity (Acts 16:22-32). Our lives may be vulnerable to the unjust pain and suffering caused by others, but we must look beyond the suffering and be willing to love even our attackers for the sake of Christ in the hope that they may come to know the gospel and be saved.

       Rejoicing in the midst of Christian suffering is an act of the will, not a natural emotional response. By faith the Christian chooses to praise God in the midst of his suffering because he knows God is using that suffering to produce the character of Christ in him (John 16:33; Rom. 5:3-5; Jam. 1:2-4). Even when the Christian faces death at the hands of violent attackers, he is to continually entrust himself to God as the keeper of his soul (Luke 23:46; Acts 7:59). The Christian overcomes evil when he adopts God’s will for his life and follows it, no matter the cost. The Christian overcomes evil by committing himself to doing God’s will according to Scripture and refusing to bow down to the evil pressures of weak people who have surrendered themselves to Satan’s worldly system. To be sure, overcoming evil is not a onetime event, but a lifetime activity that has application to every aspect of life wherever evil is encountered.

       Turning now to the matter of God’s vengeance, let me be clear that God has not ignored the fact that His children are being wrongly treated everywhere. The above section was presented first to show the believer that God is aware of the unjust suffering that His people face and to make the Christian aware that the Lord has provided everything he needs to overcome every adversity this world will present, so that that he might face it with courage and honor (Rom. 5:3-5; 8:28; Eph. 1:3; Jam. 1:2-4). At the present, God is being patient with sinful men, withholding His wrath and graciously drawing them to Himself and saving many (2 Pet. 3:9). However, though the grace of God is infinite in scope, it is not eternal in its duration, and there will come a day when the Lord’s grace will largely be withdrawn from this world, and He will pour forth His wrath upon mankind (Rev. 6-19). In the book of Revelation, the Apostle John had a vision in which he saw underneath an altar, “the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained” (Rev. 6:9). These are the souls of martyred saints who will be persecuted and put to death unjustly at the hands of violent men because of their faith in Christ. John heard them crying out to God and asking, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10). The answer that came in heaven was, “…they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also” (Rev. 6:11). Patience was required. God has in His mind a set number of martyrs who must die for their faith before the measure of the world’s sinful cup becomes full, and then He will pour forth His righteous wrath upon the world and bring about the judgment it so richly deserves.

       Christians who look to the Lord for justice have every right to call out to Him in expectation that He will judge and avenge them for their mistreatment in the world. Even though Scripture tells the believer, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God”, it also assures him that vengeance will come, for the Lord says, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY” (Rom. 12:19). God will execute vengeance on the earth, and that day of retribution will ultimately come when the Lord Jesus Christ personally returns to earth at His second coming. At this time He will put down all human rebellion and establish His millennial kingdom (Rev. 19:11-21; 20:1-6). John saw in a vision the return of the Lord Jesus Christ at His second coming and described it as follows:

And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He [Jesus Christ] who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war. His eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a name written on Him which no one knows except Himself. He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations [who oppose Him], and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty [cf. Isa. 63:1-6]. And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.” Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and he cried out with a loud voice, saying to all the birds which fly in midheaven, “Come, assemble for the great supper of God, so that you may eat the flesh of kings and the flesh of commanders and the flesh of mighty men and the flesh of horses and of those who sit on them and the flesh of all men, both free men and slaves, and small and great.” And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies assembled to make war against Him who sat on the horse and against His army. And the beast [i.e. the Antichrist of the Tribulation] was seized, and with him the false prophet who performed the signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image; these two were thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone. And the rest were killed with the sword which came from the mouth of Him who sat on the horse, and all the birds were filled with their flesh. (Rev. 19:11-21)

       Rest assured, there is a day of vengeance coming upon this world, and Jesus Christ, the Son of God, will personally bring it to pass (Rev. 19:11-21; cf. Isa. 63:1-6). After the millennial reign of Christ, all unbelievers of human history will stand before the Great White Throne of Christ and be judged because they had rejected Jesus Christ as their Savior (Rev. 20:11-15). Because their names were “not found written in the book of life,” they will be “thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:15). A day of judgment follows a day of vengeance. Until then, believers must stay the course and be faithful to the Lord as His ambassadors to a lost and hostile world He desires to save (2 Pet. 3:9).

Dr. Steven R. Cook

God Allows Suffering

       A truth of Scripture is that living by faith may result in great blessing, and other times may result in great suffering. The believer is not to concern himself with the end result of either blessing or suffering, but is to live by faith and advance toward spiritual maturity. In Hebrews chapter 11, the writer shares both the blessing and suffering aspects of those who lived by faith. Regarding some of the blessings he says:

And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, [and] put foreign armies to flight. (Heb. 11:32-34)

      Every Christian loves to hear the victory stories of those who lived by faith and overcame the adversities of life as God rescued them from their trouble. The Bible is encouraging because there are many victory stories and the Christian needs to hear them. God blesses the believer with many victories that result in deliverance and blessing. However, there are times when the Christian lives by faith in God and is obedient to His Word and suffers great persecution and dies at the hands of violent men. Regarding those who suffered for their faith the writer of Hebrews states:

others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground. (Heb. 11:35-38)

       Faith in God is no guarantee the believer will live a life free from suffering or persecution. Too many preachers speak of the blessings of the Lord and the victories to be had while dismissing those clear passages in Scripture that speak about Christian suffering which is according to the will of God (1 Pet. 2:19-21; 3:14, 17; 4:19). The growing Christian lives by faith in God, trusting His promises and obeying His commands, whether it requires him to sit still or be active. Sometimes being quiet and doing nothing is just as much an act of faith as speaking out and being busy (Ps. 46:10; Jam. 1:19). The believer learns discernment as he grows in wisdom. (excerpt from, Overcoming Evil in Prison, p, 96-98)

Steven R. Cook, D.Min.



A Theological Look at Suffering

     Everyone suffers. It’s not really a question of who will and who won’t, but how much and how often? Most people want to know why they suffer, if there’s any purpose to suffering, or if there’s anything they can do to minimize it. Suffering is a perpetual and universal feature of the human race that will last as long as we live in a fallen world with fallen people. According to Scripture, God not only allows suffering, but causes it for our good (Ps. 119:71; Isa. 45:7; Heb. 12:5-11). The presence of suffering does not necessarily mean something is wrong in the Christian’s life, and the absence of suffering does not necessarily mean God is pleased with him. One can be completely in the will of God and experience great suffering (1 Pet. 4:19), whereas one can be completely in sin and be free from any form of suffering at all (Ps. 73:1-12). Suffering by itself proves neither godliness nor sin.

       Suffering is all around us, both visible and invisible. Some is bearable and some is beyond our natural ability to cope. It can be physical, mental, and/or emotional. It can be short lived or last a lifetime. It can leave scars. It can influence behavior either positively or negatively, either making us stronger or tearing us down. Suffering can be self-induced or brought on by others. Some suffering is deserved (Dan. 4:1-37; Luke 23:41), and some undeserved (Matt. 16:21; 17:12; Mark 9:22; Acts 5:41; 9:15-16; 2 Tim. 2:3-9; 1 Pet. 2:20; 3:14-17; 4:19). I’ve learned not to turn away from suffering so quickly (though it is my natural tendency to do so), but to question its value and ask whether it serves some good purpose. I am convinced that God wants me to know some suffering because it helps me mature, both in my natural human development as well as my spiritual life. No pain, no gain as the adage goes.

       In the Old Testament, suffering is commonly identified by the Hebrew word oni which is translated as “affliction, poverty” and at times “frustration.” Familiar Old Testament passages where oni is found include: Gen. 16:11; 29:32; 31:42; Ex. 3:7, 17; 4:31; 1 Sam. 1:11; 16:12; Job 30:16, 27; 36:15; Ps. 9:13; 25:18; 119:50, 92, 153; Isa. 48:10; Lam. 1:3, 7, 9. In the New Testament, the common Greek word for suffering is thlipsis, which is translated as “trouble that inflicts distress, oppression, affliction, tribulation.” New Testament passages where thlipsis is found include: Matt. 13:21; Rom. 2:9; 2 Cor. 1:4; 2:4; 4:17; 7:4; 8:2; Phil. 4:14; Col. 1:24; 1 Thess. 3:7; 2 Thess. 1:6; Rev. 2:10. Numerous theological truths are gleaned from these passages; truths which help the Christian orient to reality and live within the biblical framework.

       Though many have wrestled with the biblical subject of suffering, no one has a complete understanding of it. There are often more questions than answers. We struggle to grasp our own pain and the pain of others. As humans, we wrestle to produce some good in the world to offset the sorrow of suffering, but our limited abilities and resources constantly hinder our best efforts. Even the good we do for others is short-lived; leaving only a memory of kindness in hearts that perpetually face new needs and struggles. Frustration abounds. At present, there is no lasting solution to suffering among men, and it will not cease to be part of the human experience until God destroys the current heavens and earth and creates a new heavens and a new earth that is free from sin and all its destructive influences (Rev. 21-22). God alone must save us from our current condition, as men are drowning in a sea of sorrows. Sin is the major reason for suffering, and though we counterbalance some of sin’s effects by good works, in the end it is God alone who must ultimately deal with the sin problem.

       The Bible gives the divine perspective that helps us to make sense of suffering. Having the divine perspective does not always lesson the pain associated with suffering, but it gives us an answer for suffering and, I believe, makes it bearable. One such answer is that God wants to mature us as Christians, and suffering is a vehicle that He uses to advance our spiritual life. It’s not suffering by itself that gets the job done, but our biblical response to it that brings the outcome God desires. He wants us to respond properly to the difficult situations He’s permitted or caused in our lives. We cannot control many of the difficult circumstances that come our way, but we can respond to them biblically, and in this way we can please the Lord and grow to be mature believers.

       Among Christians, I’ve met some who regard all forms of suffering as bad, rooted in evil, and who seek to expunge it from their lives when possible. Others accept suffering, seeing it as purposeful, even welcoming it because they believe it will help develop their Christian character and bring about the spiritual maturity they desire. God can use suffering to break down pride and humble us (Dan. 4:37), or He can use it to build us up and make us stronger (1 Pet. 5:10), but He never leaves us alone, and suffering is just one of the many tools He uses to mold us into the character of Christ; if we’ll let ourselves be molded by His hand.

       Everything we experience in this life is designed to prepare us for the life we will come to know when we leave this world and enter into God’s eternal presence. The challenge before every Christian, especially during times of suffering, is to view all aspects of life in the light of eternity. We must constantly live in the eternal-now, never divorcing our current experiences from our eternal destiny that is assured to us who are in Christ. The apostle Peter tells us “to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation” (1 Pet. 4:13). The apostle Paul shares a similar mindset when he says “for I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18); for “momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). Suffering becomes bearable when the Christian sees it in the proper context of eternity to which he belongs right now. I say he belongs to eternity “right now” because as a Christian he possesses eternal life at the very moment he believes in Christ as his Savior (John 10:28). Eternal life is not what the Christian can have, but what he does have at the moment of salvation. However, it is only at the moment he leaves this world and all its sorrows and enters into the presence of God in heaven that eternal life has its greatest experiential expression. The flow of time ceases at death, and all life’s sufferings associated with this world come to an end when the believer passes into eternity. More so, at the end of time itself, God will put an end to all suffering and evil when He destroys the existing universe and earth and creates a new universe and new earth (Rev. 21:1). At such a time “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes [believers who have suffered]; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). Until then, we must look to the Lord.

       When considering the subject of suffering from a biblical perspective, it’s beneficial to start with a proper understanding of God and His character. The Bible teaches that God exists as a Trinity: God the Father (Matt. 6:9; Phil. 2:11), God the Son (John 1:1, 14; 20:28), and God the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3-4). All three Persons of the Trinity are co-equal, co-infinite, and co-eternal, and though they have differing roles in how they relate to each other and the creation, they are perfectly equal in essence (John 10:30). Being equal in essence means that all three Persons of the Godhead share the same attributes. According to Scripture God is:

  1. Sovereign – He rules His universe as He pleases (1 Chron. 29:11; Dan. 4:35; Acts 17:24-25).
  2. Righteous – He is upright in character (Ps. 11:7; 119:137).
  3. Just – He is upright in all His actions (Ps. 9:7-8; 19:9; 50:6; 58:11).
  4. Holy – He is positively good and completely set apart from sin (Ps. 99:9).
  5. Omniscient – He knows all things (Ps. 139:1-6; Matt. 6:31-33).
  6. Omnipresent – He is everywhere (Ps. 139:7-12; Heb. 13:5).
  7. Omnipotent – He is all powerful (Job 42:2; Isa. 40:28-29).
  8. Immutable – He never changes (Ps. 102:26, 27; Mal. 3:6).
  9. Truth – He is truth and reveals truth (2 Sam. 7:28; John 14:6; 17:17; 1 John 5:20).
  10. Loving – He acts in the best interest of others (Jer. 31:3; 1 John 4:7-12, 16).
  11. Faithful – He is consistent to fulfill His promises (Deut. 7:9; Lam. 3:23; 1 John 1:9).
  12. Merciful – He is compassionate to the needy (Ps. 86:15; Luke 6:36; Tit. 3:5).
  13. Gracious – He is kind to the undeserving and humble (Ps. 111:4; 116:5; 1 Pet. 5:5, 10).
  14. Eternal – He has endless existence (Deut. 33:27; 1 Tim. 1:17).

       God controls suffering. Even the wickedness of men and the suffering they cause is used by God to display His grace and love. King David had an adulterous affair with Bathsheba and murdered her husband Uriah and the Lord caused David to suffer for his sin (2 Sam. 11:1-12:24); yet, by God’s grace, it was through David and Bathsheba that the baby Jesus was eventually born into this world (Matt. 1:6, 16). David’s sinful relationship with Bathsheba was sovereignly used by God to bring about the birth of His Messiah! At the end of His earthly ministry, Christ suffered at the hands of godless men who nailed Him to the cross, yet His suffering was “by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God” in order to bring about our salvation (Acts 2:23a; cf. John 3:16). Wicked men willfully raised their hands against the Son of God and crucified Him, but what they accomplished was exactly what God “predestined to occur” (Acts 4:28), and the outcome is eternal life to us who have trusted in Jesus as our Savior. By His infinite wisdom and sovereignty “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Historically, God has used suffering to bring about His will and this is most obvious in His provision of salvation to a fallen world He wants to save.

       On the negative side, men who reject God and the biblical perspective are forced to live in a naturalistic mindset in which their very existence is the product of chance. If there is no God, then men are the product of chance, the accidental collection of molecules over time, and the suffering they experience is simply a part of the natural order of things, neither good nor evil, neither purposeful nor meaningful. More so, morals and values become arbitrary, and people like Hitler and Stalin are no better or worse than Mother Theresa. If there is no God, then evil itself must be regarded as a natural part of the fabric of the universe, self-existent in its own way. The cruelty of man then becomes no better or worse than the cruelty of animals, for all is part of the same natural universe. Without God, life simply is what it is; and conversations about right and wrong really become power-plays as men seek dominion over each other through the use of clever and forceful rhetoric.

       Biblically, sin originated in heaven with Lucifer, an angelic being of the order of Cherubim, who rebelled against God and convinced many angels to follow him (Isa. 14:12-14; Ezek. 28:12-18; Rev. 12:4). Shortly afterward (no one knows exactly when), Satan convinced Adam and Eve to set their wills against God, and the heavenly rebellion moved to earth. Suffering, as we know it on earth, is the result of sin, and sin in humans originated in the disobedience of Adam and Eve when they rebelled against God in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:16-17; 3:1-8). Both sin and suffering are connected. A perfect world was cursed, thorns and thistles introduced, and pain in childbirth increased, all as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:16-18). The major hammer blow of sin was death, which was pronounced on Adam and Eve and extended to all their descendants who were born after them (Gen. 3:19; cf. Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:21-22). The children of Adam and Eve have only known the struggle of life’s decay that eventuates in death (the removal of the soul from the body). Death is unnatural to the creation, and this is why it hurts when someone we love dies. However, death can also be a display of God’s mercy and grace, for it keeps man from suffering forever in a fallen world plagued by sin.

       Since the fall of Satan, as well as the fall of Adam and Eve, the major sources of suffering include oneself (Prov. 1:22; 8:36; 15:32; Isa. 3:9; ; 2 Pet. 2:12-15); other people (Gen. 3:1-18; 1 Chron. 21:14-17; Jonah 1:12), Satan (Job 1:1-21); demons (Luke 8:29); and God Himself (1 Sam. 16:14-16; Job 1:21; 2:10; Eccl. 7:14; Isa. 45:7; 2 Cor. 12:7-10; Rev. 19:11-21). Suffering exists mainly in connection with willful creatures and the choices they’ve made in the past or are making in the present.

       The main causes of suffering are righteous living (1 Pet. 3:13-17; 4:12-19), fellowship with Christ (Phil. 1:29-30), membership in the Kingdom of God (2 Thess. 1:3-6), sinful choices as believers (Gal. 6:7-8; 1 Pet. 4:15; 2 Pet. 2:12-16); the sinful unfaithfulness of others (Num. 14:32-33), the ravages of disease (Matt. 4:24; 9:20; Luke 4:38), and the will of God (1 Pet. 4:19).

       From the biblical perspective, some of the major purposes for suffering include bringing the unbeliever to salvation (Dan. 4:28-37; Acts 9:1-9), moving people geographically to accomplish God’s will (i.e. the famine that moved Joseph’s family to Egypt: Gen. 15:13-14; 37:1-50:21), humbling the arrogant believer (Jon. 2:1-10; 1 Pet. 5:5), teaching Christians to have sympathy for others (2 Cor. 1:5-7), helping advance Christian character (Rom. 5:1-5; Jam. 1:2-4), warning against sin (1 Cor. 11:27-32), teaching obedience to God’s laws (Ps. 119:71; Heb. 5:8), correcting from sin (Ps. 32:1-5), teaching that God is faithful to strengthen in times of adversity (Phil. 4:11-13), providing an opportunity to share your Christian hope (1 Pet. 3:14-15), serving as a godly example to others (Jam. 5:10-11), displaying the works of God (John 9:1-3), and for God’s glory (John 11:1-4; 21:18-19; 2 Cor. 4:17-18).

       Jesus Himself is the greatest example of suffering for the believer, as the Scripture plainly states He “suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps” (1 Pet. 2:21). And what is the example the Christian is to follow? That even though Christ suffered unjustly and was physically and verbally attacked, “He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet. 2:23). It is because of Christ’s example that Paul tells Christians “never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19).

       Suffering is inevitable in life, but the believer who lives by faith in God and clings to His Word has an anchor for the soul that sustains him during difficult times. The believer who lives by faith can have joy in the midst of trials (Isa. 26:3; Acts 5:40-41; 16:22-30; 1 Cor. 10:13; Phil. 4:10-13). To Christians who were facing persecution, the apostle Peter wrote “in this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials” (1 Pet. 1:6). These Christians could rejoice because the trial itself would prove the genuineness of their faith, and “though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:7). And Christians who were suffering in Thessalonica, the apostle Paul declared had “received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess. 1:6). The truth is that Christians are complex and can simultaneously know tribulation and joy, as these are not mutually exclusive experiences. The apostle Paul made this clear when he stated:

…we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Rom. 5:3-5)

       Paul could “exult” in his tribulations because he saw them as purposeful, being used by God to bring about “perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope.” Paul’s objective was to glorify God and advance to spiritual maturity, and he knew that God often used suffering as the means to accomplish that goal, and was therefore willing to rejoice in such hardships. James uses similar language when he writes:

Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (Jam. 1:2-4)

       As Christians, we will face trials, but how we respond to them is a matter of choice. No one likes suffering, and our first response is usually to complain and turn away from it. However, we must be mindful of our natural inclinations and fight the weakening instinct that compels us to grumble at our troubles rather than look to the Lord and live by faith. James tells us to “consider it all joy” when we face trials, because those trials will help us advance in our Christian character. To “consider it all joy” is purely an act of faith, because our feelings are usually down in the dirt when trials come. When we’re facing a trial, our feelings aren’t up to praising God, but faith must rise above our circumstance and feelings if we’re to live spiritually and benefit from the promises God has provided. The apostle Paul demonstrated this magnificently when he faced a time of suffering he called his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7).

Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me– to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:7-8)

       Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” caused him great pain, and he knew the suffering was to produce humility and keep “from exalting myself.” Paul’s first reaction was to pray to the Lord several times to take it away, and we can all identify with Paul in his prayer. However, God refused to remove Paul’s suffering, and informed him that He would give him the strength necessary to live with the hardship, saying “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Now, upon hearing this news, I suspect many believers would double-up on their prayers and beg God even more to take away their “thorn in the flesh.” Some might even get angry with God and perhaps accuse him of being cruel or unloving. But notice, the apostle Paul handles the news well and by faith declares:

Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:9-10)

       These are the words of a believer who is sold out for God! He’s totally committed to the Lord and has surrendered his life to Him! Paul is essentially saying “God, I trust Your actions in my life no matter what, and am convinced that the suffering you send my way is for my good, and I will cling to You in the midst of my stormy life, for You are my strength.” I have read the above passage many times, and by faith have stated those words in my own trials. I’ve not been consistent in every hardship, and I don’t know any Christian who has, but Paul’s words reflect the proper biblical attitude we ought to have in every trial.

       Coping with suffering is possible when the believer learns to look to the Lord and utilize His spiritual provisions (Eph. 1:3). This primarily means living by faith, moment by moment, and trusting God at His Word (Rom. 1:17; 10:17; Heb. 11:6). The world and those who live in it are dominated by thoughts that exclude God, and so they think about anything and everything except God and His Word. The believer has a choice to include or exclude God in his thoughts, words, and daily activities. This daily choice determines whether the believer will live in the house of faith or the house of fear. If he lives in the house of faith, he will be able to cope with the pressures of life and stand for God and His will in the midst of life’s storms. If he’s living in the house of fear, then life’s trials and pressures will overrun his soul and he will only know perpetual anxiety. Sometimes the believer goes back and forth on a daily basis, living in one house or the other. As we advance in our spiritual walk, we learn to live more and more in the house of faith and benefit from the blessings God has provided to those who take refuge in Him and His promises (Deut. 31:6; Isa. 26:3; Prov. 3:5-6; 25-26; Matt. 6:25-34; Phil. 4:10-14).

       The Christian who learns God’s Word on a daily basis increases his capacity to live by faith and enjoy the many blessings of God. As goes his knowledge of God’s Word, so goes his capacity for understanding and enjoying life, even in the midst of suffering. The reality is that the Christian will face many hardships beyond his control, and God does not promise to take them away. In fact, some trials are sent by Him to humble us and to develop our character to be more like Christ. Some ask God to remove their trial, but God will never remove that which produces humility and keeps us close to Him.

An excerpt from my book – Suffering: A Biblical Consideration.

Steven R. Cook, D.Min.

Suffering and Depression

     It was early January and I was dining after dark with friends when I heard faint cries coming from outside.  Standing and looking out the nearby window, I saw a young man who looked to be in his early twenties, stagger down the sidewalk and collapse about ten feet from the building.  I rushed outside and knelt on the ground next to him while others inside called for medical help (which took about five minutes to arrive).  He lay on the cold asphalt, shivering and sobbing, and appeared to be more in emotional distress than physical pain.  He looked at me, a total stranger, and through his tears said he was on the verge of losing his girlfriend and newborn baby and that his life had been ruined by bad choices and the use of cocaine and other drugs.  After saying these things he turned his head and cried uncontrollably.  His life had not always been marked by bad choices.  Phantom memories surfaced and he spoke of a Christian childhood when Christ was Lord of his life and all his friends were wholesome believers.  Somewhere in his teenage years he had turned away from the Lord and the suffering of bad choices and worldly friends helped bring about his present sorrow.  I put my hand on his shoulder and prayed quietly as I sat next to him.  He cried out to the Lord, and not knowing what to say, he started praying the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name…” (Matt. 6:9, KJV).  I verbally joined him in his prayer so that he would not feel alone, but would know he was in the presence of a caring Christian.  He heard me praying with him, and through teary eyes stared for a moment.  For a brief instant we connected, but a minute later an ambulance pulled into the motel parking lot and I was moved aside so they could perform their necessary service.  Apparently he had been using harmful illegal drugs and was in need of medical attention.  The young man called out to me as he was put on the stretcher and placed in the ambulance and I could only watch and pray for him as he was taken away.  I never saw him again, though I’ve prayed for him many times. 

     I was marked by that brief encounter.  That young man was at a place of personal brokenness when the paths of our lives crossed.  There seemed to be sorrow and repentance on his lips.  It mattered little to me that much of his pain was self-induced, but only that he was crying out to the Lord for help.  To turn away from him at such a moment would betray a spiritual poverty and sickness within my own soul.  More so, it would ignore the sovereign hand of God who creates such opportunities for us to show grace and love to others.  A year earlier I was in a similar place of personal brokenness, for my life had been ruined by many bad choices and I knew what it meant to have others praying for me and showing grace and love when I needed it most. 

Jeremiah     Looking into Scripture, we find the greatest examples of suffering anywhere.  Job and Jeremiah were two men who suffered greatly.  Both were sensitive men who knew depression as a result of their suffering, and as we read about their lives we can cry with them.  In the midst of his sadness Job said, “why then hast Thou brought me out of the womb? Would that I had died and no eye had seen me! I should have been as though I had not been, carried from womb to tomb” (Job 10:18-19).  Because of his sorrow, Job saw his life as a “land of darkness and deep shadow; the land of utter gloom as darkness itself, of deep shadow without order” (Job 10:21-22a).  During his time of sadness, the prophet Jeremiah wished that his “mother would have been [his] grave, and her womb ever pregnant” and in his great anguish went on to ask, “why did I ever come forth from the womb to look on trouble and sorrow, so that my days have been spent in shame?” (Jer. 20:17-18). 

     What shall we say to Job and Jeremiah?  Shall we ask them to be silent and not use such language because it makes us feel uncomfortable?  Shall we be callous and accuse them of hidden sin or not having enough faith?  Shall we fault them because they are not expressing joy in the midst of their sorrow?  There is a joy to be had in life, but let’s not rob these godly men of their sorrow, or turn away from them for expressing themselves with such grief-laden language because it makes us feel uncomfortable.  Let’s not turn away from them for at least two reasons:

  1. Because their response to suffering reveals their humanness. Job and Jeremiah were real people living in a real world who were touched by real circumstances.  Though most of us will never know the depth of suffering and sorrow that Job and Jeremiah knew in their lifetime, we can identify with their pain and cry with them because we understand in a smaller way what it means to suffer, and this is our connection with them.  Suffering connects us all together.
  2. Because despair was not their only perspective on life. Job and Jeremiah also had the divine perspective on life and at times spoke words of truth and hope, and this gives us truth and hope as well.  Though they suffered in the furnace of affliction, they proved God and His Word to be reliable and more than sufficient to sustain them.  During and after their time of suffering they spoke words of praise to the One in whom they had placed all their confidence.  Worshipping God as the One who sustains and gives us hope in the midst of our trials is what binds us together with other believers, even those who lived long ago in a foreign land and who spoke a different language.  God and His Word connect believers together.

     Job was a righteous man who loved the Lord and turned away from evil (Job. 1:1-5).  In one day Job was confronted with the sudden death of all his sons and daughters, the destruction of his business, and the loss of his personal health (Job 1:6-19; 2:1-8).  Though he could have cursed God as his wife suggested (Job. 2:9), Job kept his faith and continued to trust the Lord (Job 1:20-22; 2:10).  In the midst of grief Job said:

As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God; whom I myself shall behold, and whom my eyes shall see and not another. My heart faints within me. (Job 19:25-27)

     Jeremiah had witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian army.  The city had been burned, tens of thousands of men and woman put to death, and many taken away into slavery to Babylon as Jeremiah watched.  One can see why he is often referred to as the weeping prophet (cf. Jer. 9:1; 13:17; 14:17).  Yet, even after witnessing Jerusalem’s destruction and enduring personal persecution, Jeremiah stated:

This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The LORD’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Thy faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, therefore I have hope in Him. (Lam. 3:21-24)

     Other men in Scripture such as David, Elijah, Peter and Paul all knew suffering and sorrow, yet expressed words of hope and faith in God.  Of course, no one knew suffering more than the Lord Jesus Christ, who throughout His life was “despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3).  During the time of His public ministry, Jesus knew He would suffer and die upon the cross, and He declared, “the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day” (Luke 9:22).  And just hours before His crucifixion, Jesus “began to be grieved and distressed” (Matt. 26:37), telling a few of His disciples, “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death” (Matt. 26:38).  In spite of His personal pain, Jesus was willing to suffer and die for the benefit of the salvation of others.  The Scripture declares that “as a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; by His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities” (Isa. 53:11).  The death of Christ had meaning, because God’s righteousness was satisfied and others were blessed to enjoy the gift of eternal life (Rom. 3:21-26). 

     Suffering touches us all.  It moves and shapes us in ways we never imagine.  It breaks us down and builds us up, but it never leaves us where it finds us.  In Scripture we learn that God’s power is magnified in our weaknesses and that suffering reveals our true state as weak creatures who need the Lord in our lives for strength and guidance (2 Cor. 12:7-10).  As we develop spiritually, we learn to keep our eyes more and more on heaven, knowing that ultimate relief from suffering will only come when the Lord returns and establishes righteousness on the earth (Rev. 20-22).  There is much Scripture on the subject of suffering and there is hope and strength in God for those who turn to Him in the midst of life’s sorrows.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

An excerpt from my book – Suffering: A Biblical Consideration