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).

Suffering that Builds Christian Character

No one likes suffering, and generally, we try to avoid it. However, some suffering is unavoidable, as there are people and circumstances beyond our ability to influence. This is part of the human experience. But we are not neutral, and though suffering is inevitable, how we handle it is optional. If we greatly fear suffering, then we may be tempted to avoid it at all costs, and the weakening instinct of self-preservation might handicap us from maturing in life. God wants us to grow up and become mature Christians (1 Cor 14:20; Eph 4:11-14), and suffering is sometimes the vehicle He uses to help get us there.

As Christians, we realize some fear is rational and healthy, and this helps regulate our words and actions. Rational fear might also be labeled as healthy caution, which is a mark of wisdom. When driving on the highway, it’s good to be slightly cautious of other drivers, as this can help us avoid an accident. And, when entering a relationship with another person (i.e., friend, business partner, spouse, etc.), a little caution can save us much heartache. Solomon tells us, “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Prov 13:20). Here, an ounce of prevention will save us from a pound of trouble.

Biblical Self-TalkSometimes, we’re the source of our own suffering, as we make bad choices that affect us physically, socially, financially, etc. The wise will learn from their bad choices—even choices done in ignorance—and be better. And sometimes our mental and emotional distress is the product of irrational fears in which we manufacture imaginary negative situations that upset us. These are the mental dramas we construct in our thinking in which we are under attack by someone or something and feel helpless to stop the assault. These self-produced mental plays can include family, friends, coworkers, or anyone we think has the power to hurt us. But we have the power to redirect our thoughts, shut the story down, change the characters, or rewrite the script any time we want. Of course, this requires introspection and the discipline to manage our thoughts. As I’ve shared in other lessons, the stability of the Christian is often predicated on the biblical content and continuity of our thinking. It’s not only what we think, but we keep on thinking that provides mental and emotional equilibrium.

As a Christian, suffering can be viewed either as a liability or an asset. A liability is a burden, a drain on one’s life and resources. However, an asset is a benefit, something that adds value to life. If we’re able to frame life’s difficulties from the divine perspective, then we can thank God for the trials He sends our way, because we know He’s using them to humble us and shape us into the persons He wants us to be. How we view the trial determines whether it makes us bitter or better. But such an attitude is a discipline of the mind.

Paul-4In Paul’s second letter to the Christians at Corinth, he recorded an incident in which he’d been caught up to heaven and “heard inexpressible words” (2 Cor 12:4). But Paul’s heavenly experience came with a price. The Lord knew Paul would become prideful because of the experience, so the Lord gave him a “thorn in the flesh” that was intended to cause him suffering and humility (2 Cor 12:7). Though Paul did not like the suffering, he eventually came to understand it was divinely purposeful. Twice he declared it was given “to keep me from exalting myself” (2 Cor 12:7). The word “exalt” translates the Greek verb ὑπεραίρω huperairo, which means “to have an undue sense of one’s self-importance, rise up, [or] exalt oneself.”[1] It means one becomes prideful. Elsewhere in Scripture we learn “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling” (Prov 16:18), and that God “is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet 5:5b).

Paul asked God, on three occasions, to take the discomfort away (2 Cor 12:8). But God denied Paul’s request, saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9a). God’s grace (χάρις charis) in this passage refers to His divine enablement to cope with a problem that He refused to remove. God’s grace was the strength necessary to cope with a problem that was greater than Paul’s ability to handle on his own. And God’s grace was in proportion to Paul’s weakness. The greater Paul’s weakness, the more grace God gave. This was a moment-by-moment grace, sufficient for Paul’s need.

ThornAs Christians, it’s legitimate that we ask God to remove our suffering; however, what He does not remove, He intends for us to deal with. This was true with Paul. God did not want to remove Paul’s discomfort because it served a purpose, and that was to keep him humble, to keep him close to the Lord. When Paul understood what God was accomplishing in him through the suffering, Paul chose to embrace it, knowing it came with divine help to shape him into a better person. Paul responded properly, saying, “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor 12:9b). This was done by faith and not feelings. Furthermore, Paul said, “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). The word content translates the Greek verb εὐδοκέω eudokeo, which means “to take pleasure or find satisfaction in something, be well pleased, [to] take delight.”[2] Paul was not a victim of his suffering, as he chose to frame it with a healthy biblical attitude. This also fulfills the command to “Do all things without complaining” (Phil 2:14), and to “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; and in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Th 5:16-18).

Elsewhere, Paul said, “we exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; 4 and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; 5 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). And James wrote, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jam 1:2-4). Exulting in tribulations and counting it all joy when we encounter various trials is a discipline of the mind and will, in which “we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). Warren Wiersbe states:

Our values determine our evaluations. If we value comfort more than character, then trials will upset us. If we value the material and physical more than the spiritual, we will not be able to “count it all joy.” If we live only for the present and forget the future, then trials will make us bitter, not better. Job had the right outlook when he said, “But He knows the way that I take: when He hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). So, when trials come, immediately give thanks to the Lord and adopt a joyful attitude. Do not pretend; do not try self-hypnosis; simply look at trials through the eyes of faith. Outlook determines outcome; to end with joy, begin with joy.[3]

Weakness is a blessing if it teaches us to look to God more and to ourselves less. And we cease to be the victim when we see suffering as divinely purposeful. This is not always easy, but the alternative to faith is fear, and fear brings mental slavery to the circumstances of life. By framing his weaknesses, insults, distresses, persecutions, and difficulties from the divine perspective, Paul was able to see them, not as a liability, but as an asset that worked for his benefit to help shape him into the person God wanted him to be. From God’s perspective, Paul’s Christian character was more important than his creaturely comforts. And Paul needed to have a character that was marked by humility, not pride.

It is true that God desires to bless us; and of course, we enjoy this. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10b). But it’s also God’s will to advance us spiritually, and this means He will send us trials that are intended to burn away the dross of weak character and refine those golden qualities He wants to see in us. We trust that when God turns up the heat, that He also keeps His hand on the thermostat, regulating the temperature. And when we desire and pursue spiritual maturity as an important goal in our Christian life, then we can become content, pleased, and even find delight in the hardships, because we know God controls them and sends them our way for our good. And this is done by faith, and not feelings.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Related Articles:

[1] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1031.

[2] Ibid., 404.

[3] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 338.

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

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[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

Related Articles:

[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.

Knowing and Doing the Will of God

BibleKnowing and doing the will of God starts with God. Biblically, there is only one God (Deut 32:39; Isa 45:5-7; 46:9), and He created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them (Gen 1:1; Ex 20:11; Neh 9:6; Acts 17:24). Furthermore, God is not silent. He has provided general revelation about Himself through nature (Psa 19:1-2; Rom 1:20) and special revelation through His Word (2 Tim 3:16-17; 2 Pet 1:20-21),[1] and through His Son, Jesus Christ (Heb 1:1-3; cf. John 1:1, 14, 18). Today, we have the written Word of God which provides the clearest revelation of His will. Apart from His Word, we have no clear understanding of who God is, what He is doing, or what He expects of us.

God’s will is mentioned several times in the Old Testament (Deut 10:10; 23:5; 2 Ch 21:7) which uses the Hebrew word אָבָה abah, which means “to will, [or] be willing.”[2] Also, in other passages (Psa 40:8; 143:10), the Hebrew word רָצוֹן ratson is used, which refers to “what pleases the Lord.”[3] Some passages in the New Testament specifically mention God’s will, where the Greek term θέλημα thelema is employed (i.e., Rom 12:2; Eph 6:5-6, Col 4:12; 1 Th 4:3; 5:16-18; Heb 10:36; 1 Pet 2:15; 4:19). God’s will in each of these passages refers to “what one wishes to happen.”[4] This speaks of what God desires from people. Other passages employ the Greek word βούλομαι boulomai (Matt 11:27; Jam 1:18; 2 Pet 3:9), which denotes a “desire to have or experience something, with implication of planning accordingly.”[5] The latter term sometimes refers to what God brings to pass, such as when James writes, “In the exercise of His will [βούλομαι boulomai] He brought us forth by the word of truth” (Jam 1:18a). But sometimes it refers to what God wants, but makes contingent upon a human response of faith, such as when Peter writes that the Lord “is patient toward you, not wishing [βούλομαι boulomai] for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). Context always determines the meaning of a word.

Those who are positive to God desire to know Him, His Word, and to pursue His will.[6] Jesus said to fellow Jews, “If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself” (John 7:17). Jesus explained that knowing God’s Word is predicated on a desire to do (ποιέω poieo) His will. But some hearts are negative to God. And when the heart is negative, no amount of divine revelation will prove persuasive.[7] Jesus spoke to the hard-hearted Pharisees and said, “Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word” (John 8:43). Jesus then gave the answer, saying, “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father” (John 8:44).  They could not hear His words because they were unsaved and negative to God. These were men who “loved the darkness rather than the Light” (John 3:19). Paul described them as ones “who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom 1:18). Paul also spoke about the unsaved person, saying, “But an unbeliever does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Cor 2:14).

bible-scrollOf the one with positive volition it is said, “his delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night” (Psa 1:2). The benefit of such a lifelong meditation 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 godly person is positive to the Lord and welcomes His Word. David said, “I delight to do Your will, O my God; Your Law is within my heart” (Psa 40:8). The word delight (חָפֵץ chaphets) means, “to take pleasure in, desire…to delight in…to be willing…to feel inclined.”[8] This speaks of positive volition. God’s will (רָצוֹן ratson) refers to what pleases Him. And the word Law (תּוֹרָה torah) means teaching, direction, or instruction. Jeremiah said, “Your words were found and I ate them, and Your words became for me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I have been called by Your name, O LORD God of hosts” (Jer 15:16). To eat God’s Word is a picture of positive volition, as Jeremiah welcomed the divine revelation into himself. Once received, it delighted (שִׂמְחָה simchahdelight, joy, gladness, mirth) his heart (לֵבָב lebabinner person, mind, will). When the human heart is receptive to God’s Word, it transforms that person from the inside out, and this is both cognitive and experiential. David and Jeremiah wanted to know and walk with God, and His divine revelation, properly understood and applied, was the means to know and do it.

God will open His Word to the believer who dedicates his/her life to Him. Paul wrote, “I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do 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 12:1-2). A surrendered life to God makes the Christian sensitive to the illuminating ministry of the Holy Spirit, who aids the believer to know God’s will. Concerning this passage, Arnold Fruchtenbaum states:

It is hard to understand what the will of God is without this act of dedication because the believer does not have the Spirit’s illumination, which is needed to determine God’s will from His Word. Dedication brings knowledge of the will of God. Having the knowledge, the logical outworking of the dedicated life is that the believer now does the will of God.[9]

God’s Word is powerful and accomplishes what He desires (Isa 55:10-11; Heb 4:12), and it lights a fire in the heart of those who welcome it. For example, Jesus, after his resurrection, walked for several miles with two disciples and gave them a Bible lesson which lasted for several hours as they traveled “to a village named Emmaus, which was about seven miles from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:13). Luke records what Jesus taught them, saying, “beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27). After His Bible lesson, the two disciples said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32). The heart that is positive to God receives His Word and is excited by what is learned.

Theological Categories of God’s Will

The will of God can be divided between His secret will and revealed will. Moses wrote, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law” (Deut 29:29). What God has revealed in Scripture is what He deems important for us to know. But there are secret things that belong to the Lord and He remains silent. To spend our days pursuing that which God has decreed to keep secret will result in unending frustration. If we have prayed and have studied God’s Word thoroughly and received no answer to prayer, then it’s either because God does not want us to know, or to know at this time. We may, through our daily experiences, seek to determine God’s will for us; however, such providential understanding must always be subordinate to God’s written revelation. Though we don’t know many particulars about what God is doing, we know He is in control and directing history to the return of Christ and the eternal state, and we are part of that grand plan. Concerning God’s revealed will, the following classifications are noted in Scripture.

First, God’s sovereign will, which refers to His free and independent choices to do whatever He pleases. God declares, “My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please” (Isa 46:10b; cf. Psa 33:11), and “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; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’” (Dan 4:35). “Whatever the LORD pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps” (Psa 135:6), and He “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph 1:11b).

God remains in constant sovereign control, guiding His creation through history. He meddles in the affairs of mankind, and His unseen hand works behind all their activities, controlling and directing history as He wills. We know from Scripture that God possesses certain immutable attributes and that He never acts inconsistently with His nature. For example, because God is righteous, all His actions and commands are just. Because God is immutable, His moral perfections never change. Because God is eternal, He is righteous forever. Because God is omniscient, His righteous acts are always predicated on perfect knowledge. Because God is omnipotent, He is always able to execute His righteous will. Because God is love, His judgments can be merciful toward the undeserving and humble.

God controls who sits in positions of power, whether they hold that position by birth or democratic vote. Ultimately, it is God “who changes the times and the seasons; He removes kings and establishes kings” (Dan 2:21a), for “the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, and bestows it on whom He wishes and sets over it the lowliest of men” (Dan 4:17). When Israel turned negative to God, He judged them by placing weak leaders over them, saying, “I will make mere lads their princes, and capricious children will rule over them (Isa 3:4). The result was, “Those who guide you lead you astray and confuse the direction of your paths” (Isa 3:12b).

God even controls hostile unbelievers to accomplish His purposes (Prov 16:4). When Jesus was on trial, Pilate falsely thought he had control over Him, saying, “Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?” (John 19:10). Operating from divine viewpoint, Jesus said to Pilate, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11). While praying to God, Peter and John acknowledged God’s sovereignty over the Gentile rulers, saying, “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur” (Acts 4:27-28).

Second, God’s directive will, which refers to His actively guiding His people to do what He expects. For example, God directed Adam and Eve to be “fruitful and multiply” and to “rule” as theocratic administrators over His creation (Gen 1:28). After creating the garden of Eden, He directed them to “cultivate it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). He also gave them freedom, saying, “from any tree of the garden you may eat freely” (Gen 2:16), but also gave one prohibition, saying, “from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die” (Gen 2:17). Other examples include God directing Noah to build an ark (Gen 6:13-14), directing Abraham to leave his country and go to the place where God wanted (Gen 12:1), directing Moses to go to Egypt to liberate His people (Ex 3:10), and later to give them the Law so they could walk in His will (Ex 34:27-28).[10] It should be remembered that the four Gospels reveal that Jesus was born and lived under the Mosaic Law code (Gal 4:4), and during His time of ministry, He directed others to obey that code (i.e., Matt 8:1-4; 23:1-3). However, that covenant and law code has been fulfilled by Christ and rendered obsolete (Matt 5:17-18; Heb 8:13). And now, God has given commands to Christians which are found in the New Testament. The book of Acts covers the first thirty years of the Church and is generally historical information, being descriptive but not prescriptive. Specific commands for the Christian living in the dispensation of the Church age generally start in Romans 1 and extend to Revelation 3. However, Jesus’ discourse in the Upper Room (John chapters 13-17), the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:19-20), and the Great Commission (Matt 28:19-2) belong to the Church.

These biblical distinctions are important, for though all Scripture is written for us, only some portions of it speak specifically to us and command our walk with the Lord. Just as Christians would not try to obey the commands God gave to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1-2, or the commands God gave to Noah in Genesis 6-9, so we should not try to obey the commands God gave to Israel in Exodus through Deuteronomy. Christians are not under the Mosaic Law (Rom 6:14), but operate under the Law of Christ (1 Cor 9:21; Gal 6:2). Charles Ryrie states:

Adam lived under laws, the sum of which may be called the code of Adam or the code of Eden. Noah was expected to obey the laws of God, so there was a Noahic code. We know that God revealed many commands and laws to Abraham (Gen 26:5). They may be called the Abrahamic code. The Mosaic code contained all the laws of the Law. And today we live under the law of Christ (Gal 6:2) or the law of the Spirit of life in Christ (Rom 8:2). This code contains the hundreds of specific commandments recorded in the New Testament.[11]

Because God is the Author of both law-codes (i.e., the Law of Moses as well as the Law of Christ), it is not surprising that He chose to incorporate some of the laws He gave to Israel into the law-code which He has given to the Church. Nine of the 10 commandments are restated in the New Testament (the Sabbath is excluded because it was the sign of the Mosaic Covenant; Ex 31:13-17).[12]

1Bible-study (1)When reading through the New Testament, God provides both general and specific directives to Christians. Examples of general directives include learning God’s Word (Rom 12:1-2; Col 3:16; 2 Tim 2:15; 1 Pet 2:2), applying God’s Word (Jam 1:22), loving others as Christ has loved us (John 13:34), being filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18), and walking by means of the Spirit (Gal 5:16), submitting to governing authorities (Rom 13:1), paying taxes (Rom 13:6), stimulating one another to love and good deeds (Heb 10:24), and not forsaking our assembling together (Heb 10:25). Other examples include living by faith (Heb 10:38; 11:6), seeking godly wisdom (Jam 1:5), pursuing peace with others (Rom 12:18), being forgiving (Col 3:13), using gracious words (Col 4:6), being kind (Eph 4:32; cf. Prov 3:3-4), edifying others (Rom 14:19; 1 Th 5:11), serving (Gal 5:13), seeking the best interests of others (Phil 2:3-4), rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks (1 Th 5:16-18), and acting for God’s glory (1 Cor 10:31). Some specific commands include sharing the Gospel with others (Mark 16:15), and making disciples by teaching them Scripture (Matt 28:19-20). Pastors are to preach God’s Word (2 Tim 4:2), equip the saints for God’s work (Eph 4:11-12), and help lead them to spiritual maturity (Eph 4:13-16). The husband is to love his wife as Christ loves the church (Eph 5:25; cf. Mark 10:45), and the wife is to submit to her husband’s loving spiritual leadership (Eph 5:22). Christian children are to obey and honor their parents (Eph 6:1-4). Christian employees are to obey their supervisor (Eph 6:5-8; Col 3:23-24), and Christian supervisors are to treat their workers well (Eph 6:9; Col 4:1; Jam 5:4).

Third, God’s permissive will, which refers to what He permits us to do, either for or against His directive will. All sin falls under this category, for He permits us to resist His directives in some instances. This is also true for fallen angels who are granted a measure of freedom to sin. The fall of Adam and Eve provides a good example of God’s permissive will, for after He’d directed them not to eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:16-19), He permitted them to disobey and to follow Satan’s leading (Gen 3:1-7). Laney writes, “God’s permissive will refers to what the Lord permits even when it is not in conformity with His revealed or prescribed will. God may permit sin, though it is not in keeping with what He prefers.”[13]

Concerning the permission of divorce, Jesus said the Pharisees, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way” (Matt 19:8). God’s permissive will can be observed on a national level, as Paul said, “In the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways” (Acts 14:16). This explains much of the poor behavior we see among the nations as we study world history. God is always righteous and directs people to righteous living. However, God is no bully, as He does not force people to obey Him. When people turn negative to God, He permits them to pursue their sinful ways, though they are not free to choose the consequences of their actions. One who plays with fire will eventually get burned. Concerning those who “suppress God’s truth in unrighteousness” (Rom 1:18), three times it is written that He “gave them over” to “the lusts of their hearts” (Rom 1:24), and “to degrading passions” (Rom 1:26), and “to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper” (Rom 1:28). Once God permits a person to operate by his/her sinful passions, they are given a measure of freedom to live as they want. These are described as “being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, and unmerciful” (Rom 1:29-31).

Fourth, God’s overruling will, which refers to those occasions when He hinders His creatures from acting contrary to His sovereign purposes. Throughout Scripture we observe God intervening in the actions of fallen angels and people. After God permitted Adam and Eve to disobey Him, He then drove them from the Garden of Eden and overruled their ability to go back in and eat from the tree of life (Gen 3:22-24). After Abraham lied to Abimelech and told him that Sarah was his sister, Abimelech took her as his wife. However, in order to protect Sarah, God intervened and told Abimelech, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is married” (Gen 20:3). Abimelech pleaded with God and claimed his innocence (Gen 20:4-5). God, being just, told Abimelech, “Yes, I know that in the integrity of your heart you have done this, and I also kept you from sinning against Me; therefore, I did not let you touch her” (Gen 20:6). Jacob served his uncle Laban for twenty years, but during that time his uncle had mistreated him, and by the end, he saw his uncle “was not friendly toward him as formerly” (Gen 31:2). Realizing it was time for Jacob to leave his uncle, he told his two wives, Rachel and Leah, “your father has cheated me and changed my wages ten times; however, God did not allow him to hurt me” (Gen 31:7). During the tribulation, there will be hostile unbelievers who will try to flee from God’s wrath by seeking death. But God prevents them from this escape, as John writes, “in those days men will seek death and will not find it; they will long to die, and death flees from them” (Rev 9:6).

When Satan wanted to attack Job, God granted him permission, saying, “Behold, all that he has is in your power” (Job 1:12a). But then God restrained Satan, saying, “do not put forth your hand on him” (Job 1:12b). When Satan came back a second time, God granted him permission to attack Job’s body, saying, “he is in your power” (Job 2:6a), but then told him to “spare his life” (Job 2:6b). When Job’s wife advised him to “curse God and die” (Job 2:9), he responded, saying, “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” (Job 2:10). During the seven-year tribulation, demons are released from an angelic prison and “power was given them” to hurt unbelievers (Rev 9:3). However, they were restrained, as God told them, “not to hurt the grass of the earth, nor any green thing, nor any tree, but only the men who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. And they were not permitted to kill anyone, but to torment for five months” (Rev 9:4-5a). Satan is currently active in the world (1 Pet 5:8; 1 John 5:19) and will be during the tribulation. However, God intervenes at the end of the tribulation and has Satan arrested and “bound for a thousand years” (Rev 20:2). God’s arresting angel “threw Satan into the abyss, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he would not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were completed; after these things he must be released for a short time” (Rev 20:3).

Fifth, God’s providential will, which refers to the outworking of His sovereign will in such a way that He creates circumstances that direct our lives and destiny. Believers who understand this will make their human plans contingent on God’s sovereign plans (1 Ch 13:2; Acts 18:21; Jam 4:15). As God’s people, we know the Lord and His will for our lives because His written Word informs and guides us. The Bible is our divine pedagogical guide. In addition to Scripture, God directs us providentially as He controls the circumstances of our lives to His desired end. However, only the believer with a thorough knowledge of God’s Word can properly interpret his/her circumstances and know what God is doing. Interpreting circumstances, or divine impressions on the heart, is never as clear as knowing God’s Word. Charles Clough states:

There is a mystical element to Christianity in how the Lord leads you; and He impresses upon you different things. But you can never elevate that mystical part of your Christian life and make it equal to the revelation of Scripture, because the revelation of Scripture is the measuring stick so you can tell the difference between Christ in the heart and heart burn. How you do that is whether it fits the Scripture.[14]

God’s providence is His continual care over the creation He brought into existence. God continues to create and control circumstances in order to direct history according to His predetermined plan, all for His glory and the benefit of His people. People live in the flow of history, and are moved by the circumstances God controls. J. I. Packer states:

Providence is normally defined in Christian theology as the unceasing activity of the Creator whereby, in overflowing bounty and goodwill (Psa 145:9 cf. Mt 5:45–48), he upholds his creatures in ordered existence (Acts 17:28; Col 1:17; Heb 1:3), guides and governs all events, circumstances and free acts of angels and men (cf. Psa 107; Job 1:12; 2:6; Gen 45:5–8), and directs everything to its appointed goal, for his own glory (cf. Eph 1:9–12).[15]

JosephGod is holy and never creates evil, however, He can and does control those who do. Satan, and those who follow him, are ultimately under God’s sovereign control, and even their evil plans and actions are used for His good purposes. For example, Joseph was mistreated by his brothers and sold into slavery and taken to Egypt where he suffered greatly. Yet, later in his life, Joseph interpreted their behavior from the divine perspective, telling his brothers, “Now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Gen 45:5). And Joseph repeated himself a second time, saying, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance. Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Gen 45:7-8a). And later, he told them a third time, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Gen 50:20). It was God’s providence that drove Saul to chase after his father’s donkeys, and then be led to the prophet Samuel and anointed king of Israel (1 Sam 9-10). It was God’s providence that directed Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, so the baby Jesus would be born at the appointed time and place (Mic 5:2; Luke 2:4-6; Gal 4:4). Later, Joseph and Mary were compelled to go to Egypt, in order to preserve the baby Savior (Matt 2:13-15). It was God’s providence that forced Aquila and Priscilla out of Rome by the emperor Claudius’ decree, only to meet the apostle Paul in Corinth and join him in Christian ministry (Acts 18:1-3; Rom 16:3; 1 Cor 16:19). It was God’s providence that put the Lord Jesus on the cross to be crucified by the hands of godless men. Peter, charging Israelites in Jerusalem concerning Jesus’s death, said, “This Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death” (Acts 2:23). And after being persecuted by the leaders in Jerusalem, Peter and John, along with others, said to God, “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur” (Acts 4:27-28). In these verses we see people behaving sinfully, whether Joseph’s brothers, or human rulers who abuse their power; yet God used their sinful choices to bring about a greater good. Because God is righteous, all His actions are just (Psa 119:137). Because He is loving (1 John 4:8), He directs all things for the benefit of His people. Because He is good (Psa 34:8; 100:5), He “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).

Concerning Christian ministry, God providentially opens and closes doors of service. Throughout the New Testament, an “open door” refers to a divinely orchestrated opportunity for sharing the gospel and engaging in Christian ministry (Acts 14:25-27). On one occasion the Lord closed an opportunity for ministry (Acts 16:6-7), but then opened another (Acts 16:9-10). An “open door” for ministry can have opposition (1 Cor 16:7-9), does not remove everyday concerns about life (2 Cor 2:12-13), should be sought with prayer (Col 4:2-3), and once opened cannot be shut by people (Rev 3:8). As God’s people, we do not create occasions for Christian ministry; we simply accept those provided for us by the Lord (Eph 2:10).

In summary, knowing and doing God’s will is largely a matter of knowing His Word and walking in it. Those who are positive to God will desire His Word in order to obey it. From Scripture we know about the Lord Himself, His sovereign control over His creation, what He desires of us, His permission of sin, as well as His directing history providentially to the return and reign of Christ. Where Scripture is silent, we may try to ascertain His will through the circumstances of our life, but such understanding must always be subordinate to the clear revelation of Scripture.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

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[1] God, on several occasions, commanded His prophets to record what He had revealed to them. He told Moses, “Write this in a book” (Ex 17:14), and “Write down these words” (Ex 34:27). To Isaiah He said, “Now go, write it on a tablet before them and inscribe it on a scroll” (Isa 30:8), and to Jeremiah He commanded, “Write all the words which I have spoken to you in a book” (Jer 30:2).

[2] William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 788.

[3] Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000), 1282.

[4] William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 447.

[5] Ibid., 182.

[6] For the Christian, this does not mean our sin nature is removed, nor that we are free from the sinful pressures of living in a fallen world. Paul said, “I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members” (Rom 7:21-23). This struggle with sin continues until we leave this world and enter into heaven. Until then, it is God’s will that we remain in this world (John 17:15) as His ambassadors (2 Cor 5:20).

[7] For example, Noah preached to his generation for one hundred and twenty years, but they refused to listen (Gen 6:3; 2 Pet 2:5). Jeremiah spoke to the leaders of Israel, saying, “these twenty-three years the word of the LORD has come to me, and I have spoken to you again and again, but you have not listened” (Jer 25:3). Preachers are responsible for the accurate output of the message, not the outcome of response.

[8] Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, 340.

[9] Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, Faith Alone: The Condition of Our Salvation: An Exposition of the Book of Galatians and Other Relevant Topics, ed. Christiane Jurik, Second Edition. (San Antonio, TX: Ariel Ministries, 2016), 120.

[10] God had revealed His will for Israel through the Law of Moses, and this gave them clear guidelines for how to live as God desired. Because God cares for His people, He provided them rules for living in relationship with Himself and others. If His people walked in the ways of the Lord, He promised them blessing (Deut 28:1-14). But if they turned away from His revealed will, He promised them cursing (Deut 28:15-68). The blessed life or the cursed life was always before them (Deut 11:26-28). God’s directives were communicated through Moses to God’s people (Deut 6:1-2), who were to receive them and adhere to them (Deut 6:3-6), and communicate them to their children (Deut 6:7).

[11] Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999), 351.

[12] Additional biblical distinctions reveal that Israel is a nation (Ex 19:6), but the church is not a nation (Rom 10:19). God’s program for Israel focused on the land promised to Abraham (Gen 12:1; 15:18; 17:8), whereas the church is called to go out to many lands (Matt 28:19-20; Acts 1:8). Israel was mentioned throughout the Old Testament and recognized by other nations (Num 14:15; Josh 5:1), but the church was a mystery not known in the Old Testament (Eph 3:1-6; Col 1:26-27; cf. Rom 16:25-26). Israel had a priesthood that was specific to the tribe of Levi (Num 3:6-7), whereas all Christians are priests to God (Rev 1:6). Israel worshipped first at the Tabernacle and later the Temple (Ex 40:18-38; 2 Ch 8:14-16), but for Christians, their body is the temple of the Lord and they gather locally where they want (1 Cor 6:19-20; cf. 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15). Israel offered animal sacrifices to God (Lev 4:1-35), but Christians offer spiritual sacrifices (1 Pet 2:5; cf. Rom 12:1; Heb 13:15). Israel was required to tithe from the produce of their land (Deut 14:22-23; 28-29; Num 18:21), but there is no tithe required from Christians, only a joyful attitude when giving, “for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7).

[13] J. Carl Laney, eds. Charles R. Swindoll and Roy B. Zuck, “God’s Decree and Individual Free Will” in Understanding Christian Theology (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003), 215.

[14] Charles Clough, Lesson 21 – Moral Relativism; Justification & Procedures for Holy War, (2010, 17th minute). https://www.bibleframeworkapplied.org/multi-lesson-series/deuteronomy

[15] J. I. Packer, “Providence” in New Bible Dictionary, ed. D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard and D. J. Wiseman, 3rd ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 979-80.

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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Rejoice, Pray, and Give Thanks

     I’m generally a happy person; but that’s because I work at it, especially when I don’t feel like it. Being happy starts with my choice to be thankful. It is a discipline of the mind to force myself to find something to be thankful for, and to focus on that rather than the negative thing that can tear me apart inside if I let it. It is an act of faith in which I force my mind to think on Scripture, in which I am “destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). The battle is constant, and I usually win; but that’s because I’ve been working at it for years, meditating on Scripture, all day, every day, and applying what I’ve learned.

     If I’m not careful, I can easily fall into a pattern of complaining, and this can prove harmful, not only to me, but those around me, for my life influences others, for better or worse. Scripture states, “Do all things without complaining or arguing” (Phi 2:14). That’s a big order. How do I do this? By an act of faith; that’s how. Though the pressure can be great at times, I consciously make the choice not to complain; instead, I choose to “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; and in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you [me] in Christ Jesus” (1 Th 5:16-18). In these verses Paul uses three verbs in the imperative mood, which is the mood of command. A command assumes intellectual capacity to comprehend, the ability to obey, and present or future opportunity. The verbs are rejoice (χαίρω chairo), pray (προσεύχομαι proseuchomai), and give thanks (εὐχαριστέω eucharisteo). The first two commands relate to time: rejoice always, and pray without ceasing. The third command relates to circumstances: in everything give thanks. In short, these are to be executed all the time and in every situation. And to make the commands emphatic, Paul adds, “for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Th 5:18b). These divine expectations appear elsewhere in Scripture, as we are called to “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phi 4:4a), “Devote yourselves to prayer” (Col 4:2a), and “Give thanks always for all things” (Eph 5:20a).

In Everything Give Thanks     These commands are relatively easy to accomplish when life is good, and we should certainly praise God for His many blessings. But what about those times when life is difficult; such as when we’ve lost our health, work is overly stressful, or we’re experiencing unjust persecution? Are we to rejoice, pray, and give thanks even during those times? Yes! Especially during those times. It’s in difficult moments that we need to operate by faith, not feelings. In fact, feelings can work against us when we’re experiencing difficulty. When feelings rise up, faith must rise higher. As we commit to obeying the Word, our feelings will eventually get in line. It’s only when we understand and obey these commands by faith that we rise above our difficult circumstances. Though we aren’t physically removed from the hardship, mentally we’re lifted above it and experience a joy that is free from it. Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt 5:11-12). This is exactly what the apostles did when they were persecuted and flogged, for Luke tells us, “So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41). And when Paul and Silas had been beaten and thrown into jail, we’re told they “were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” (Act 16:25). Elsewhere, Paul wrote, “we exult in our tribulations” (Rom 5:3a), and “I rejoice in my sufferings” (Col 1:24). And James wrote, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials” (Jam 1:2). One of the reasons we can rejoice in suffering is because we know God is using it to develop our character in order to mature us spiritually (Rom 5:3-5; Jam 1:2-4). God sometimes uses the furnace of affliction to burn away the dross of weak character and to refine those golden qualities He wants to see in us. As Christians operating on divine viewpoint, it’s our responsibility to live by faith when the trials come. 

     This may seem impossible to do, especially if we’re accustomed to living by our feelings and reacting to circumstances. However, living by faith is possible, and is the only way Scripture can be obeyed, especially in difficult circumstances. Living by faith is liberating, because it frees us from the tyranny of difficult circumstances over which we have no control, and from the knee-jerk reaction of hurt feelings that naturally rise up in such situations. If we stay the course of learning God’s Word and living by faith, we will reach a place in our spiritual development where His Word becomes more real than our circumstances and feelings, and this is the place of freedom and joy, as long as we remain there. 

Prayer

     Dear Father, thank You for the many blessings you have bestowed on me that have enriched my life, and thank you for the difficulties that help develop my character and advance me toward spiritual maturity. Thank you for Your Word which defines reality and equips me with the viewpoint, commands, and promises I need to walk with You; all of which liberates me from the tyranny of difficult circumstances over which I have no control. Thank You Father for being good and giving meaning and purpose to my life. I pray that I may walk in a manner worthy of my calling in Christ, and that such a walk may honor You and edify others.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

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The Virtue of Humility

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Phi. 2:3-4)

       In Scripture, the humble are sometimes described as those who live in impoverished or difficult conditions (Deut. 15:7; 1 Sam. 2:7; 2 Sam. 22:28; Jam. 1:9); however, the inward virtue of humility does not automatically belong to those who are poor or suffer life’s hardships.  Humility is a lowliness of mind, an inward quietness before the Lord that reflects a poverty of spirit.  The humble know they need God and seek Him for wisdom, guidance and strength.  Humility is not a natural quality, nor does it come easily, but it is what the Lord requires of His people (Mic. 6:8; Eph. 4:1-2; Phi. 2:3-4).  The humble live with a constant sense of their weaknesses and inabilities to cope with life apart from God, and are keenly aware of their sinful nature and propensity to turn away from the Lord and befriend the world.  Humility is not a sense of worthlessness, but unworthiness of the Lord’s love and blessings.  The humble realize they deserve nothing good in this life, and any blessing they receive is from God’s grace. 

Humility in the spiritual sense is an inwrought grace of the soul that allows one to think of himself no more highly than he ought to think (Eph. 4:1–2; Col. 3:12–13; cf. Rom. 12:3)…It requires us to feel that in God’s sight we have no merit and to in honor prefer others to ourselves (Rom. 12:10; cf. Prov. 15:33). It does not demand undue self-depreciation but rather lowliness of self-estimation and freedom from vanity. The Gk. term praotēs, “gentleness” (rendered “meekness” in KJV) expresses a spirit of willingness and obedience and a lack of resistance to God’s dealings with us. But humility must also be expressed towards those who wrong us, in order that their insults and wrongdoing might be used by God for our benefit (see Acts 20:18–21). It is enjoined of God (Ps. 25:9; Col. 3:12; James 4:6, 10) and is essential to discipleship under Christ (Matt. 18:3–4).[1]

       The Glory of HumilityHumility should not be thought of as passivity or weakness.  On the contrary, the humble person pursues righteousness and justice (Mic. 6:8) and can be very bold and outspoken.  Moses was very humble when doing the Lord’s will and standing confidently against Pharaoh to deliver the Israelites from Egyptian bondage (Exodus chapters 3-12).  Jesus was humble when driving the money changers from the temple (Matt. 21:12-13), or rebuking the Jewish leaders for their arrogance and hypocrisy (Matt. 23:13-33).  Humility is not thinking less of self, but more of others.  Paul writes, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves” (Phi. 2:3).  True Christian humility is voluntary—or self-imposed—as the believer surrenders his personal desires in loving service to others for their spiritual and material benefit.  It has the notion of child-like dependence, as Jesus taught His disciples (Matt. 18:3-4).  The greatest display of humility is found in God the Son who left His glory in heaven (Phi. 2:5-8; cf. John 17:5), became a man (John 1:1, 14; Heb. 10:5), became a servant (Mark 10:45; John 13:1-17), and ultimately “humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phi. 2:8).  The glory of humility is seen at the cross (John 12:23, 32-33), where Jesus gave His life as an atoning substitutionary sacrifice for others (Rom. 5:6-10; 1 Cor. 15:3-4; 2 Pet. 3:18). 

       Humility is the basis for teachability, as David writes, “Good and upright is the LORD; therefore He instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in justice, and He teaches the humble His way” (Ps. 25:8-9).  We sin when we ignore God and try to live independently of Him.  Sometimes God uses difficult circumstances to humble us and bring us to the place of perpetual dependence on Him, even though it is our nature to fight against being in the helpless place (read Dan. 4:28-37; 2 Cor. 12:7-10).  Being in the difficult situation—the place of suffering—is sometimes exactly where God wants us, and “the brother of humble circumstances is to glory in his high position” (Jam. 1:9). 

       Scripture provides a true estimation of reality, allowing us to see God, the world, and ourselves from the divine perspective.  The Bible teaches that we come from God and that we have worth because we are made in His image (Gen. 1:26-27).  We live and breathe and eat and enjoy life because God provides for us every moment of every day (Matt. 6:25-32).  God seeks out the humble, for he says in Isaiah, “to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word” (Isa. 66:2).  And Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).  “Jesus does not demand visible self-abasement (cf. Mt. 6:16 ff.; Mk. 2:18–19) but a total trust in God that expects everything from him and nothing from self.”[2]  This is strength through weakness, victory through humility, realizing “the battle is the LORD’S” (1 Sam. 17:47; cf. 2 Chron. 14:11; 20:15).  Scripture reveals the victories of life are not by self-effort, for the Lord declares, ‘“Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the LORD of hosts”’ (Zech. 4:6), and, “He gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might He increases power” (Isa. 40:29).  Ultimately, “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18).

       The prideful person rejects God and His revelation and seeks to operate independently of the Lord.  The believer needs to be aware of pride, for “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling” (Prov. 16:18).  Arrogant people rarely see their own faults, but almost always focus on the faults of others.  Solomon writes about prideful men and states, “When pride comes, then comes dishonor, but with the humble is wisdom” (Prov. 11:2), and, “A man’s pride will bring him low, but a humble spirit will obtain honor” (Prov. 29:23).  It is the humble person who finds success in life; not necessarily a worldly success, but a divine success, in which the believer lives by faith and pleases the Lord (Heb. 11:6).

Steven R. Cook, D.Min.

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[1] Merrill Frederick Unger, “Humility” The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988).

[2] Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1985), 1155.

The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53

       It is in the understanding of the suffering and death of Christ that the sinner appreciates God’s great love and the price that was paid for his salvation.  Christ suffered in place of the sinner, bearing the penalty that rightfully belonged to him.  Scripture tells us that “Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18a).  Perhaps no section of Scripture in the Old Testament bears greater testimony to this truth than Isaiah 52:13 through 53:12, in which the prophet reveals the Messiah as the suffering Servant.  Isaiah 53 is mentioned eight times in the New Testament as specifically referring to Christ, so that there is no mistake in the minds of the New Testament writers that the passage points to Jesus.

The New Testament writers quote eight specific verses as having been fulfilled in Jesus.  Verse 1 (‘who has believed our message?’) is applied to Jesus by John (12:38).  Matthew sees the statement of verse 4 (‘he took up our infirmities and carried our diseases’) as fulfilled in Jesus’ healing ministry (8:17).  That we have gone astray like sheep (v. 6), but that by his wounds we have been healed (v. 5) are both echoed by Peter (1 Pet. 2:22-25), and so in the same passage are verse 9 (‘nor was any deceit found in his mouth’) and verse 11 (‘he will bear their iniquities’).  Then verses 7 and 8, about Jesus being led like a sheep to the slaughter and being deprived of justice and of life, were the verses the Ethiopian eunuch was reading in his chariot, which prompted Philip to share with him ‘the good news about Jesus’ (Acts 8:30-35).  Thus verses 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 11 – eight verses out of the chapter’s twelve – are all quite specifically referred to Jesus.[1]

       Though Isaiah 53 is quoted most often in the New Testament, the section about the suffering Servant actually starts in Isaiah 52:13 and runs through to the end of chapter 53.  Isaiah 52:13-15 appears to provide a summary of chapter 53, albeit in reverse order.  Isaiah 52:13-15 reveals the Lord’s Servant first as successful, and then reveals His suffering and the beneficial results that follow.  Then, in chapter 53, Isaiah reverses the order by first showing the Servant’s suffering in 53:1-9, and then His success and the beneficial results in 53:10-12. 

Behold, My servant will prosper, He will be high and lifted up and greatly exalted. Just as many were astonished at you, My people, so His appearance was marred more than any man and His form more than the sons of men. Thus He will sprinkle many nations, kings will shut their mouths on account of Him; for what had not been told them they will see, and what they had not heard they will understand. (Isa. 52:13-15)

       God spoke through His prophet Isaiah and declared, “My servant will prosper, He will be high and lifted up and greatly exalted” (Isa. 52:13).  Christ came as God’s perfect Servant, as the One who always accomplished His will.  A servant is one who faithfully executes the will of another, and Christ perfectly executed the will of God the Father.  When God the Son came into the world and added to Himself perfect humanity, He declared “a body Thou hast prepared for Me” (Heb. 10:5); and once in hypostatic union, declared to His Father, “I have come to do your will” (Heb. 10:9).  Regarding the Father’s will, Jesus stated, “I always do the things that are pleasing to Him” (John 8:29).  On the evening before His crucifixion Jesus declared, “I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do” (John 17:4).  And, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed, “Your will be done” (Matt. 26:42b).  There has been only one perfect Servant in the history of the human race that has accomplished the will of God the Father in every way, and that is Jesus Christ. 

       The word “prosper” (Heb. sakal) has the idea of success based on prudence.  It is God who declares His Servant a success, because His Servant accomplished His will, His way.  From the world’s perspective, Jesus died as a common criminal, defeated and crucified by Roman soldiers.  From God’s perspective, the cross was a planned and controlled event, as Christ was “delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23a).  Christ knew He was accomplishing the Father’s will when facing His death, and “He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8).  The result of Christ’s humble obedience to the Father was that “God highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name” (Phil. 2:9).  Jesus’ death was an intelligent sacrifice, humbly executed.  As a result of His obedience, “He will be high and lifted up and greatly exalted” (Isa. 52:13).

       The Scourging of ChristAfter declaring that God’s Servant will “prosper…be high and lifted up and greatly exalted”, Isaiah then gave a stark contrast by saying, “His appearance was marred more than any man and His form more than the sons of men” (Isa. 52:14).  The word “marred” (Heb. mishchath) means to be disfigured.  Prior to His crucifixion, Jesus endured beatings and a scourging that so radically changed His appearance that had we stood at the foot of the cross and looked up, we would not have recognized Him.  It is reported in the Gospel of Mark that when Jesus was arrested that “Some began to spit at Him, and to blindfold Him, and to beat Him with their fists, and to say to Him, ‘Prophesy!’ And the officers received Him with slaps in the face” (Mark 14:65).  Jesus then faced a corrupt trial before Pilate and “after having Jesus scourged, he [Pilate] handed Him over to be crucified” (Mark 15:15).  Jesus was then given to the Roman soldiers for more beatings before finally being nailed to the cross. 

The soldiers took Him away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium), and they called together the whole Roman cohort. They dressed Him up in purple, and after twisting a crown of thorns, they put it on Him; and they began to acclaim Him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They kept beating His head with a reed, and spitting on Him, and kneeling and bowing before Him. After they had mocked Him, they took the purple robe off Him and put His own garments on Him. And they led Him out to crucify Him. (Mark 15:16-20)

       Jesus’ face was bloody and swollen from His beatings and torn ribbons of flesh hung from His body as a result of the scourging.  However, as brutal as it was, it was not His physical suffering that secured our salvation, but His spiritual suffering, in which He bore the sin of all mankind and died in our place.  It should be remembered that Christ made no sound while being beaten, scourged and nailed to the cross (Isa. 53:7) and that it was not until He was on the cross bearing our sin that He cried out to His Father (Matt. 27:46). 

       The result of Christ’s suffering is that “He will sprinkle many nations, kings will shut their mouths on account of Him; for what had not been told them they will see, and what they had not heard they will understand” (Isa. 52:15).  Here is the work of Christ as Priest, cleansing many as the result of His suffering.  The word “sprinkle” (Heb. nazah) was commonly used in connection with the Jewish priests concerning the consecration of objects and the cleansing of people (Lev. 8:11; 14:7).  Through His suffering, Christ will provide cleansing and consecration to the “nations” (Heb. goyim), which is a reference to the Gentile nations of the world.  “Because of the sacrifice of Christ, we can tell all the nations that forgiveness and redemption are offered free to all who will receive Him (1 Peter 1:1–2).”[2]  The rulers of the earth are silenced at the success of God’s humble Servant.  This will be especially true at His Second Coming when Christ returns to establish His millennial kingdom on earth. 

Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. (Isa. 53:1-3)

       Human reason leads to incredulity by those who seek to understand God’s strength through the weakness of His Servant.  God’s thoughts and ways are infinitely higher than the thoughts and ways of men (Isa. 55:8-9), and the wisdom and power of God shines through the frailty of His Servant who surrenders Himself to accomplish His will.  God displays His great power through an unassuming Man, His Servant, who is “like a tender shoot…a root out of parched ground” (Isa. 53:2a).

There is quite a contrast between “the arm of the Lord,” which speaks of mighty power, and “a root out of a dry ground,” which is an image of humiliation and weakness. When God made the universe, He used His fingers (Ps. 8:3); and when He delivered Israel from Egypt, it was by His strong hand (Ex. 13:3). But to save lost sinners, He had to bare His mighty arm! Yet people still refuse to believe this great demonstration of God’s power (Rom. 1:16; John 12:37–40).[3]

       A “root out of dry ground” means Jesus had no sustaining benefit from the soil of His human life.  There was nothing in His environment that benefited or carried Him along from day to day.  Jesus found no nourishment or support socially, politically, or even from His human family; God sustained His Servant by the Holy Spirit and the power of His Word (Matt. 3:16; 4:1-11).  This is true for God’s children today, as the world provides no nourishment or sustaining benefit to the believer.  The Christian is nourished spiritually by God’s Word (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 1 Pet. 2:2; 2 Pet. 3:18), and sustained by the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:16; Eph. 5:18).

       Isaiah tells us Jesus had “no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him” (Isa. 53:2b).  It seems from this passage that there was nothing in Jesus’ natural appearance that caused men to see anything exceptional in Him.  He apparently had none of the outward qualities one might expect to see in royalty.  He would never catch your eye if you passed Him on the street.  Scripture reveals Jesus was born in a humble place and His youthful years were spent in the uncultured district of Nazareth (Luke 2:7-16; John 1:46), working in a dusty carpenter’s shop (Matt. 13:55).  His poor cultural and educational background, coupled with his average human features, disqualified Him from advancing into any of the human systems of the time in which He lived, a time that put great stock in one’s appearance and education.  One had to hear His words and see His miracles to comprehend His divine essence.  It was only the eye of faith that revealed this “tender shoot” as God’s special Servant.  There were some who accepted Christ during His time on earth, when He came in hypostatic union; however, He was rejected by the majority of those who heard and saw Him.  The simple teaching of Scripture is that Jesus “was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him” (Isa. 53:3).  For the most part, Jesus was met with unbelief and rejection throughout His life, and this is still true today. 

The unbelief that Isaiah here depicts is the same unbelief found all about us today. Men say pleasant and complimentary things about the Lord of Glory. They will praise His ethics, His teaching, declare that He was a good man and a great prophet, the only one who has answers to the social problems that today confront the world. They will not, however, acknowledge that they are sinners, deserving everlasting punishment, and that the death of Christ was a vicarious sacrifice, designed to satisfy the justice of God and to reconcile an offended God to the sinner. Men will not receive what God says concerning His Son. Today also, the Servant is despised and rejected of men, and men do not esteem Him.[4]

       When Christ came into the world, He came into a place of darkness and hostility, and in this place “was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3).  Christ “came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11).  Jesus came as God’s perfect Light into the world, but “men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil” (John 3:19b).  However, the rejection of God’s perfect Servant by evil men did not stop the Savior from dying for their sins, and this is the grace of God. 

Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him. (Isa. 53:4-6)

       Here, the prophet begins to reveal the idea of substitutionary atonement by stating, “Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried” (Isa. 53:4).  On the cross, Jesus bore our sins, but here the prophet reveals He bore our griefs and our sorrows, which are the consequences of our sins.  “The emphasis in verses 4–6 is on the plural pronouns: our griefs and sorrows, our iniquities, our transgressions…He did not die because of anything He had done but because of what we had done.”[5]

It should be noted that the consequence of sin and not the sin itself is mentioned. Nevertheless, when it is said that he bore our sicknesses, what is meant is not that he became a fellow sufferer with us, but that he bore the sin that is the cause of the evil consequences, and thus became our substitute.[6]

       What is difficult for some to accept is the fact that Christ suffered by the hand of His Father to satisfy His righteous demands toward the guilt of our sin.  Isaiah declares “yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted” (Isa. 53:4).  God the Father struck Jesus Christ while He was on the cross with the blows of punishment that rightfully belonged to us. 

When the Servant bore the guilt of our sins, we are saying that he bore the punishment that was due to us because of those sins, and that is to say that he was our substitute. His punishment was vicarious. Because we had transgressed, he was pierced to death; and being pierced and crushed was the punishment that he bore in our stead.[7]

       Isaiah then tells us that “He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed” (Isa. 53:4b, 5).  The healing here is primarily spiritual, restoring a broken relationship that has been fractured by sin.  The suffering of Christ healed our relationship with the Father, as His death is the basis for the forgiveness of our sins (Eph. 1:7).  The substitutionary death of Christ, that brings glory to God and saves sinners, is a revelation from heaven and not an invention of man.  Paul tells his readers that “the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). 

       Isaiah speaks of Israel and all humanity when he says, “all of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way” (Isa. 53:6a).  Each of us has failed God; but Christ, God’s sinless Servant, is the only One who has ever perfectly executed His will in everything.  God could have easily judged and condemned us all and been absolutely justified in His actions.  However, God loves us greatly, and so “the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him” (Isa. 53:6b).  Here is righteousness and love on display at the same time.  In righteousness, God judged all our sin in Christ while He was on the cross.  In love, God offers complete forgiveness and reconciliation to those who are dead in sin (Eph. 2:1-9).  God perfectly deals with sin and seeks to reconcile the sinner, and this is done through the substitutionary death of His Servant who died on the cross in our place.  We deserve God’s wrath but have been shown great mercy through the vicarious and voluntary atoning work of His Son, in whom “the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him” (Isa. 53:6b).  While on the cross, Christ absorbed God’s wrath that belonged to us, so that “the iniquity of which we are guilty does not come back to us to meet and strike us as we might rightly expect, but rather strikes him in our stead.”[8]  This is great grace! 

Sin is serious. The prophet calls it transgression, which means rebellion against God, daring to cross the line that God has drawn (Isa. 53:5, 8). He also calls it iniquity, which refers to the crookedness of our sinful nature (vv. 5–6). In other words, we are sinners by choice and by nature. Like sheep, we are born with a nature that prompts us to go astray; and, like sheep, we foolishly decide to go our own way. By nature, we are born children of wrath (Eph. 2:3); and by choice, we become children of disobedience (2:2). Under the Law of Moses, the sheep died for the shepherd; but under grace, the Good Shepherd died for the sheep (John 10:1–18).[9]

       God’s righteousness and love simultaneously intersect at the cross.  In perfect righteousness God the Father judged our sins completely in His Servant who willingly died in our place.  In love, God now offers perfect salvation to sinners who deserve only death, and this free gift of eternal life is based on the finished work of Christ who died in our place. 

We were sick unto death because of our sins; but He, the sinless one, took upon Himself a suffering unto death, which was, as it were, the concentration and essence of the woes that we had deserved; and this voluntary endurance, this submission to the justice of the Holy One, in accordance with the counsels of divine love, became the source of our healing.[10]

       The matter of our sin is resolved by the suffering of Christ at the cross.  Jesus paid the price for our sin, and now we can come to God and accept His free gift of eternal life by grace alone through faith alone.  God, who is satisfied with Christ’s death regarding our sin, has opened the gates of heaven to accept sinners as His children.  This is all made possible because of the work of Christ on the cross who suffered for our sin. 

He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth. By oppression and judgment He was taken away; and as for His generation, who considered that He was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due? His grave was assigned with wicked men, yet He was with a rich man in His death, because He had done no violence, nor was there any deceit in His mouth. (Isa. 53:7-9)

       Jesus made no effort to rescue Himself from those who illegally tried Him, beat Him, and nailed Him to the cross.  Jesus had already appealed to the supreme court of heaven, asking, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will” (Matt. 26:39).  There was nothing for Jesus to say to His judges and attackers, for He knew it was His Father’s will for Him to go to the cross and die.  Jesus declared, “the cup which the Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?” (John 18:11).

Jesus Christ was silent before those who accused Him as well as those who afflicted Him. He was silent before Caiaphas (Matt. 26:62–63), the chief priests and elders (27:12), Pilate (27:14; John 19:9) and Herod Antipas (Luke 23:9). He did not speak when the soldiers mocked Him and beat Him (1 Peter 2:21–23).[11]

       Faced with illegal trials and severe beatings, Isaiah reveals that it was by “oppression and judgment” that Jesus was “taken away” and put to death (Isa. 53:8a).  And, after Jesus was put to death between two criminals, “His grave was assigned with wicked men, yet He was with a rich man in His death, because He had done no violence, nor was there any deceit in His mouth” (Isa. 53:9). 

But the LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; if He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, and the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand. 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. Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, and He will divide the booty with the strong; because He poured out Himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet He Himself bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors. (Isa. 53:10-12)

       Jesus nailed to CrossThe language is plain, “the LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; if He would render Himself as a guilt offering” (Isa. 53:10a).  God must punish sin as His righteousness requires, before He can save the sinner as His love desires.  It was the Father’s will for the Son to go to the cross to die for sinners, but we must also realize that Christ willingly went to His death and bore the Father’s wrath in our place.  It is simultaneously true that God sent and Christ went.  Christ was willing to be put to death in our place, for the Scripture declares “Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma” (Eph. 5:2).  Jesus said “I lay down My life for the sheep” (John 10:15), and “no one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative” (John 10:18).  Several times the Scripture states that Christ offered Himself up to the Father as a willing sacrifice.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her. (Eph. 5:25)

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. (Gal. 2:20)

For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. (Heb. 7:26-27)

For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Heb. 9:13-14)

       Christ was not forced upon the cross, but willingly, through love, surrendered His life and died in our place.  And, as a result of bearing the sin of many, “He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, and the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand” (Isa. 53:10b).  When Isaiah says “He will see His offspring”, it means that Christ’s death will bear the fruit of spiritual offspring as people turn to Him as Savior and are born again (cf. John 3:3; 1 Pet. 1:3, 23).  Christ was resurrected, never to die again, therefore, “He will prolong His days” (cf. Acts 2:30-32; 1 Cor. 15:3-4).  The “good pleasure of the LORD” most likely speaks of heaven’s prosperity that will be known to those whom Christ will justify and who will share in His riches and heavenly estate (John 14:1-3; 1 Pet. 1:3-4).

       “As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied” (Isa. 53:11a).  Satisfaction through suffering is the message of Isaiah 53:11.  Isaiah reveals that “by His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities” (Isa. 53:11b).  Peter also reveals the doctrine of substitution when he states “Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18).  It is always important to keep clear in our thinking that Christ bore our sin as well as the penalty for our sin, but this did not make Him a sinner.  On the other hand, sinners are declared righteous in God’s eyes because of the righteousness of Christ imputed to them at the moment of salvation.  God gives us the gift of perfect righteousness at the moment we trust Christ as our Savior.  This is what Paul meant when he stated, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21).  Paul understood the doctrine of substitution, that Christ died in the place of sinners and that sinners are declared righteous because of the work of Christ credited to their account.  This explains Paul’s words when he expressed his desire to “be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Phil. 3:9). 

When the servant bears the iniquities of the many and has been punished for the guilt of these iniquities, the act of bearing the iniquities in itself has not changed the character of those whose iniquities are borne. When the iniquities are borne, i.e. when the guilt those iniquities involved has been punished, the servant may declare that the many stand in right relationship with God. Their iniquities will no longer be able to rise up and accuse them, for the guilt of those iniquities has been punished. Thus, they are justified. They are declared to be righteous, for they have received the righteousness of the servant and they are received and accepted by God Himself. Of them God says that they no longer have iniquities, but they do have the righteousness of the servant. This can only be a forensic justification.[12]

       Justification by imputation is always a matter of grace.  The sinner is declared righteous in the eyes of God, not because of any works which he has performed, but because of the work of Jesus Christ who has died in his place.  God’s righteousness is imputed to the sinner at the moment of salvation, and Paul states this with absolute clarity when he says:

Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation [Grk. hilasterion – i.e. a sacrifice that brings satisfaction] in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:24-26)

       Paul states at another point, “the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom. 4:4-5).  It is Christ’s death that secures our so great salvation. 

Grace is love that has paid a price, and sinners are saved by grace (Eph. 2:8–10). Justice can only condemn the wicked and justify the righteous (1 Kings 8:32), but grace justifies the ungodly when they trust Jesus Christ! (Isa. 53:11; Rom. 4:5) To justify means “to declare righteous.” He took our sins that we might receive the gift of His righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 5:17). Justification means that God declares believing sinners righteous in Christ and never again keeps a record of their sins. (See Ps. 32:1–2 and Rom. 4:1–8)[13]

       As a result of Christ’s victory at the cross, the Father speaks of reward, saying, “I will allot Him a portion with the great, and He will divide the booty with the strong” (Isa. 53:12a).  Christ is the champion, and He will divide the spoils of war, in which He has overcome sin and death and become the Savior of many.  His victory came “because He poured out Himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet He Himself bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors” (Isa. 53:12b).  Here is victory in death; victory at the cross. 

       If we had stood at the trials of Jesus, seen His beatings, seen His crucifixion and sat at the foot of the cross, surely we would weep at the injustice and inhumanity of it all.  However, the Scripture reveals that it was the will of God that Christ go to the cross and die for sinners (Acts 2:23; 4:28), for His death is an atoning sacrifice that satisfied every righteous demand of the Father (Rom. 3:25; 1 Jo. 2:2).  As stated previously, the Father sent, and Christ went.  In the willing death of Christ, we have the Father’s righteous anger displayed toward our sin as well as His love toward us, the sinner, whom He seeks to save. 

For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. (Rom. 5:6-10)

       There is a purpose to the suffering of Christ.  He suffered that we might have eternal life.  His substitutionary death propitiated the Father’s righteous anger toward our sin and now we can come to God with the empty hands of faith and receive the free gift of eternal life and be clothed in perfect righteousness.  This was accomplished while were helpless, ungodly, sinners and enemies of God (Rom. 5:6-10).  God graciously acted toward us to reconcile us to Himself, and this was accomplished through the suffering of the cross. 

Dr. Steven R. Cook

This article is an excerpt from my book, Suffering: A Biblical Consideration

[1] John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, Ill. Intervarsity Press, 1986), 145.

[2] Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Comforted, An Old Testament study (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1996), 134.

[3] Ibid., 135.

[4] Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, Mich., W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972), 344.

[5] Wiersbe, Be Comforted, 136.

[6] Young, The Book of Isaiah, Vol. 3, 346.

[7] Ibid., 348.

[8] Ibid., 350.

[9] Wiersbe, Be Comforted, 137.

[10] C. F. Keil & F. Delitzsch, Isaiah, Vol. 7, trans. James Martin, Commentary on the Old Testament (Peabody, Mass., Hendrickson Publishers, 2006), 510.

[11] Wiersbe, Be Comforted, 137-138.

[12] Young, The Book of Isaiah, Vol. 3, 358.

[13] Wiersbe, Be Comforted, 140.

Characteristics of a Controlling Personality

My Way or the Highway

Generally, a controlling person is self-absorbed, insensitive towards others, pushes to get his own way, and manipulates circumstances and people to achieve his own agenda. He cares mainly about himself and sees others as a means to an end. When feeling threatened, he may resort to unethical behavior to destroy his opponent. He does not understand or appreciate freedom and grace. 

Controlling PersonControlling others involves breaking them down, destroying their self-worth, degrading them psychologically and emotionally, even resorting to social and physical abuse in some instances. In many cases, the controlling person lacks the capacity to enjoy a mature loving relationship, because his thoughts are consumed with self, and he does not know how to love sacrificially for the benefit of others. He does not know how to love graciously, freely, with an open hand, expecting nothing in return. He gives only to get. He may use the word love, but it’s only as a means to an end, to serve his own selfish program and not the wellbeing of the other person. People are seen as objects to be manipulated, not individuals to be loved. 

These are my observations as I’ve dealt with controlling people over the years. I have no one person in mind. A controlling person can be male or female, religious or irreligious, old or young, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, and belong to any ethnic group. A controlling person may fit some or all of characteristics below. I’ve modified the list a few times, and may make corrections in the future. 

  1. The controlling personality operates primarily from a base of power, not reason. This first point is very important to understand, for what follows is based on it. Often, we don’t understand the reasoning behind a controlling person’s behavior, when in fact, there is no consistent reason, because reason is not the base of operations; power is. Reason is employed as it benefits him and advances his power. Remember: rational words only work with rational minds, and the controlling personality is not always rational.
  2. A controlling person often likes a position of authority (politician, professor, doctor, CEO, pastor, etc.). Being in control of others makes him feel important, powerful and secure (authority is legitimate, but arrogant people abuse their authority and hurt the innocent). The problem with arrogant people is that they rarely see their own faults, but only the faults of others. Their hubris prevents them from being open to genuine discussion about change. A humble person does not abuse his position of authority, but sees himself as a servant-leader, open to discussion, correction, and willingly makes sacrifices for others (Phil 2:3-4).
  3. A controlling person often will try to destroy your confidence through subtle criticisms that keep you on the defensive, making you feel self-conscious all the time and walking on eggshells. The gradual chipping away at your self-esteem leaves you deflated, feeling insignificant, and eventually makes you feel like you have no value at all (criticism can be valid, if it is followed with loving correction that builds the other person up). Scripture teaches we are to encourage one another (1 Th 5:11, 14; Heb 3:13), and build each other up (Rom 14:19), but the controlling person prefers only destructive criticism.
  4. A controlling person will sometimes recruit others to help coerce or control you. Sometimes other people are unsuspecting participants and may not know they are being used to cause harm.[1]
  5. A controlling person will sometimes use your past, or even your weaknesses against you. This is unfortunate, because in any relationship there must be trust, and this means sharing things about your past and perhaps areas where you may struggle. The controlling person will exploit these areas to his own advantage, either to keep you in his grip, or to assassinate your character with others.
  6. A controlling person will often refuse to allow you to leave the relationship, demanding you conform to his way of doing things. There’s often no grace or freedom to think or act on your own. His personality leaves little room for your personality.
  7. If threatened, a controlling person will at times seek to cut off your friends (isolate you), or try to discredit or destroy your reputation in order to keep you under his controlling influence. The general rule is: what he cannot control, he will seek to destroy (psychologically, emotionally, socially, spiritually, and in some cases physically).
  8. A controlling person is often concerned with his own appearance and with the appearance of those within his grip. This helps him try to control the perception of others beyond his grasp (it’s good to be well dressed, but emphasis should be on loving character more than appearance).
  9. A controlling person sometimes wants to associate with important people because this adds to his own image of importance. Relationships are a means to an end, and this should always be kept in mind (sometimes we will know socially important people, but it’s wrong to flaunt our relationship with them for personal gain).
  10. A controlling person will rarely admit he is wrong, even when evidence is provided. This is important because arguing becomes an exercise in futility and frustration (a humble man will readily admit his faults and be open to loving correction).
  11. A controlling person rarely changes (since this requires humility), so it’s better to quietly leave the relationship if possible (especially if you’re in danger of harm). When leaving a controlling relationship, don’t worry about explaining yourself, as he will most likely not understand your words or actions. He will not be happy with your choice, but he’s not happy anyway, so you might as well be free from the controlling influence and seek a more mature relationship.

Broken ChainsThose who have suffered prolonged exposure to a controlling person can lose self-confidence and personal joy, unless they learn and develop strong coping skills. If good coping skills are developed, those who have suffered can grow and become better rather than bitter. The pursuit of God, wisdom, and good friends can lead to healing, but this takes time. If possible, it’s best to avoid the controlling person altogether; however, don’t be rude if/when you encounter him. The Apostle Paul said, “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” (Rom 12:17-18). Be the better person. Treat him with grace and love, even though he does not show it to you. Seek to grow and be more than what he is to you. For coping skills, please see the related articles below. 

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Related Articles:

  1. The Gospel Explained
  2. A Primer on the Doctrine of Separation  
  3. The Characteristics of a Christian Leader 
  4. What Does it Mean to Be a Man? 
  5. Twelve Ways to Deal with a Bad Boss  
  6. Why Believers Show No Grace  
  7. The Value of Suffering  
  8. Mature Christian Love  
  9. Commitment Love
  10. Bible Promises that Strengthen our Faith  
  11. Dealing with Fools  
  12. Choosing Righteous Friends  
  13. Choose a Christian Spouse  
  14. Love your Enemies  

[1] This happened to me back in 2002 when I was pastoring a Southern Baptist Church in Central Texas. The head deacon was disturbed that I did not perform traditional altar calls at the end of the church service (they are not biblical) and argued with me for hours, trying to force me to comply (it was a very unpleasant experience). When I politely refused, he quietly and quickly spread lies within the congregation and engaged in character assassination. After winning over many unsuspecting church members, he inspired a coup d’etat, and within a few days I was unjustly and forcefully voted out of the church. The control-freak won and the church lost its pastor and a third of the members walked out of the morning service. I was deeply hurt by the matter and still bear scars. Over the years I’ve had other—less traumatic—experiences with controlling church leaders. 

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.

The House of Mourning

It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, because that is the end of every man, and the living takes it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for when a face is sad a heart may be happy. The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning, while the mind of fools is in the house of pleasure. (Eccl 7:2-4, NASB)

       When I was younger (in the 80’s) I spent a lot of time partying. Feasting and laughter was all I wanted. I never spent a day mourning for anyone or anything, but then I never thought about the end of life either. Solomon says, “The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning, while the mind of fools is in the house of pleasure” (Eccl 7:4). According to James Smith, “The fool is one who thinks only of the present; he lives for the hour. He shuns places of sadness and death, because they contradict his lifestyle.”[1] I was a fool.

     woman mourningThere is a place for laughter and joy and celebration, and there is a place for weeping and mourning. Wiersbe states, “Laughter can be like medicine that heals the broken heart, but sorrow can be like nourishing food that strengthens the inner person. It takes both for a balanced life, but few people realize this.”[2] Earlier in the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon declared there’s “a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Eccl 3:4). The Bible clearly recognizes both. However, when comparing mourning with feasting, and sorrow with laughter, Solomon says, “it is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting” (Eccl 7:2), and “sorrow is better than laughter” (Eccl 7:3).

       When a man enters the house of mourning he is faced with the reality that someday he will die, and this experience can be healthy, when viewed from the divine perspective. Solomon wants us to know that death is “the end of every man, and the living takes it to heart” (Eccl 7:2). According to Barry Davis, “Such a perspective forces the individual to face the reality of death toward which all life inevitably points.”[3] Not only does the house of mourning make us think about the day of our death, but it can also draw our thoughts toward heaven and make us think about God and where we will spend eternity. When a man is on his deathbed, he does not ask for a book on science, or a book on history, or a book on mathematics, rather he asks for THE BOOK, because he knows his days are near. May the fear of the Lord “teach us to consider our mortality, so that we might live wisely” (Psa 90:12, NET). 

I walked a mile with Pleasure;
She chattered all the way,
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say
I walked a mile with Sorrow,
And not a word said she;
But oh, the things I learned from her
When Sorrow walked with me!

Robert Browning Hamilton

 

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Related Articles:

  1. The Gospel Explained
  2. Suffering that Builds Christian Character 
  3. God is Our Refuge and Strength 
  4. Biblical Self-Talk 
  5. Rejoice, Pray, and Give Thanks  
  6. Faith Strengthening Techniques 
  7. When Life Gets Tough 
  8. When God Gives Us a Test
  9. Walking with God 
  10. Advancing to Spiritual Maturity
  11. Knowing and Doing the Will of God
  12. The Life of Faith
  13. Guard Your Heart 
  14. Suffering and Depression  
  15. The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53  
  16. God Wrestled with Jacob  
  17. Early Church Persecutions  

[1] James E. Smith, The Wisdom Literature and Psalms, Old Testament Survey Series (Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co., 1996), Eccl. 7:2–4.

[2] Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Satisfied, “Be” Commentary Series (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 19.

[3] Barry C. Davis, “Ecclesiastes 12:1-8—Death, an Impetus for Life” Bibliotheca Sacra, 148 (1991): 301.

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

_______

 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.



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 

Early Church Persecutions

Persecution is 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, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, 1986, p. 771)

For I am the least of the apostles, who am not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God…For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure, and tried to destroy it (1 Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13).

       Paul both persecuted the Church and later was persecuted for it. He became an example of living and dying for Christ. Persecution for the believer is a sign of his position and life in Christ (Jo. 15:18-19; 1 Jo. 3:13), and Paul taught that Christians—like Christ—should be willing to be “obedient to the point of death” (Phil. 2:8). Paul described some of the persecutions and sufferings he underwent:

Are they servants of Christ? (I speak as if insane) I more so; in far more labors, in far ore imprisonment, 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 countrymen, dangers from 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 (1. Cor. 11:23-27).

       Some Christians live under the false notion that once they become saved, life’s troubles will dissipate, and all roads will become smooth. “Paul strongly opposed any notion of the Christian life as free from suffering. Quite on the contrary, for Paul suffering was one of the marks of true gospel ministry (2 Cor. 4:7-17; 11: 23-28) and discipleship (Phil. 3:10-11; Col. 1:24).” (David S. Dockery, Holman Bible Handbook, p. 683)

       In the first century A.D. Christians suffered some of the most horrible persecutions imaginable. Around the summer of A.D. 64 there was a massive fire in Rome and tradition holds that it might have been started by the emperor Nero in an attempt to do away with a rotting part of the city. Nero blamed Christians for the fire, and without investigation the fury of Rome exploded upon the church. Nero was glad to lead the persecutions because it kept all eyes away from himself as a possible candidate of the disaster. The persecutions under Nero are reported to be among some of the worst in early Church history, and he is reported to have killed both the apostles Peter and Paul.

       The Roman emperor Domitian followed in the footsteps of Nero as was one of the cruelest persecutors of Christians. It’s possible that Domitian wanted to snuff out Christianity altogether because he thought it lead to sedition. Rome would tolerate any religion as long as it could be set aside for the sake of obedience to the emperor. Early Christians were willing to serve an emperor, but not when he claimed to be deity, or when obedience to him contradicted an obedient life to God. Domitian interpreted the Christian behavior as a challenge to his authority and the authority of Rome. Domitian vigorously moved to destroy Christians because he was afraid their views might spread and Rome might become weak and divided. He was afraid of internal disintegration. One Bible scholar describes some of the persecutions as follows:

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. (Herbert B. Workman, Persecution in the Early Church, 1906, p. 299-300)

       Some might argue that it would have been better to give recognition to an emperor rather than to suffer greatly or to 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, no matter how small, is shameful in the face of those who had testified of Christ with their life. The early Christians understood that there was never a time when they could deny the Lord and ever 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, so thousands of early Christians where willing to face Roman persecution even if it eventuated in their death.

       The Christian can be confident in the face of persecution and death knowing that God is in control of every circumstance surrounding his life. He knows that God is good, and trusts that He is in control of all things—even persecution—and will sustain him to end of his life (Romans 8:28). The following biblical truths apply to every Christian who faces death:

  1. No appointment with judgment (Heb. 9:27, 28; Rom. 8:1a).
  2. Face to face with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8).
  3. No more sorrow, pain, tears, death, regrets or embarrassment (Rev. 21:4).
  4. An eternal inheritance (1 Pet. 1:4, 5).
  5. A New Home (John 14:1-6).
  6. The perpetuation of eternal life (1 John 5:11, 12; John 10 3.
  7. Resurrection body (Job 19:25, 26; John 11:25; Phil. 3:21; 1 John 3:1, 2; 1 Cor. 15:51-57).
  8. Removal of the old sin nature (1 Cor. 1:8, 15:55-57; Phil. 3:20, 21; 1 Thess. 5:23).
  9. Removal of human good and evil (1 Cor. 3:11-15; 2 Cor. 5:10). (R. B. Thieme Jr. Dying Grace, 1977, p. 8)

       “The meaning of the word martyr…is one who has proven the strength and genuineness of his faith in Christ by undergoing a violent death” (Merrill F. Unger, Unger’s Bible Dictionary, p. 882). Believers can face any type of persecution and death with an attitude of confidence and peace if they will claim the promises of God and keep their focus on Him who gives strength to His children. Whether peaceful or violent, the Christian’s death is an event to be embraced with confidence and peace of mind. The believer’s flesh will fail him in time as death approaches; however, there is something greater than his flesh to which he can look and find strength in his hour of need: the WORD OF GOD! “For all flesh is as grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls off, but the word of the Lord endures forever” (1 Peter 1:24, 25).

       Christians face the very real threat of persecution if they choose to live by faith in God’s word rather than conform to the devil’s world. Some may bow the knee rather than endure suffering, but they do so their own shame. Some things are worth suffering and dying for; things such as honor, integrity, love, and above all, a wonderful relationship with God who gives eternal life and purpose to His children. I pray all Christians will be faithful to God when facing persecution for living His word.

Steven R. Cook, D.Min.

 

The Value of Suffering

Romans 5:1-5 Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but 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.

       Adversity helps the obedient-believer grow spiritually, when he responds properly in faith (Rom. 5:3-5; Jas. 1:2-4). Suffering by itself does not advance growth, but rather, the believer’s faith-response to it. The obedient-believer knows God is in control of every aspect of his life and that He produces the events that help the believer reach maturity (Rom. 8:28). There are no chance events in the believers’ life.

       Adversity serves to bring the rebellious-believer back to fellowship with God (Ps. 32:1-5; Heb. 12:5-11; 1 Jo. 1:9). However, if the rebellious believer rejects warning and intensive discipline, God will remove him from earth to heaven through the “sin unto death” (1 Jo. 5:16). The three stages of discipline for the rebellious-believer are:

  1. Warning (Dan. 4:4-27; 1 Cor. 11:30).
  2. Intensive (Dan. 4:28-37; 1 Cor. 11:30).
  3. Death (Acts 5:1-11; 1 Cor. 5:5; 11:30; 1 Jo. 5:16).

       For the growing believer, divine pressure produces humility by helping him realize his weaknesses and overall inability to cope with life (2 Cor. 12:7-10). As a result, the growing believer looks to God to sustain him, and lives by faith in His word (Isa. 26:3; 2 Cor. 12:7-10). The pressures of life help the believer grow in dependence on the Lord. God is glorified, and the believer is benefitted, when God’s resources are utilized in pursuit of spiritual maturity.  The process of growing into spiritual maturity never ends so long as the believer is alive. There’s never a time when the believer can say “I don’t need to grow anymore. You can stop now God; I’ve arrived!”

       The power of God is available to the growing obedient-believer. Once the believer turns away from God, he grieves/quenches the Holy Spirit and cuts off the source of divine strength. Relying on others and/or self will bring disaster when the pressures of life become too great. Francis Schaeffer illustrates this truth as follows:

“A culture or an individual with a weak base can stand only when the pressure on it is not too great. As an illustration, let us think of a Roman bridge. The Romans built little humpbacked bridges over many of the streams of Europe. People and wagons went over these structures safely for centuries, for two millennia. But if people today drove heavily loaded trucks over these bridges, they would break. It is this way with the lives and value systems of individuals and cultures when they have nothing stronger to build on than their own limitedness, their own finiteness. They can stand when the pressures are not too great, but when the pressures mount, if then they do not have a sufficient base, they crash—just as a Roman bridge would cave in under the weight of a modern six-wheeled truck. Culture and the freedoms of people are fragile. Without a sufficient base, when such pressures come only time is needed—and often not a great deal of time—before they collapse.” (Francis Schaeffer, How Should we then Live? page 23)

       Adversity comes to everyone, but only the believer – armed with Scripture – has a sufficient base with which to handle to pressures of life. Mental and emotional stability comes from learning and living God’s word on a regular basis. This means the believer must submit every area of his life to God, and be willing to do His will no matter the cost. Many Christians compartmentalize, giving God some areas of their life, while holding on to other areas. Those areas of life that are kept from God are used by Satan to defeat the believer. There is no middle ground. The believer who compartmentalizes wants to keep control of his life, and comes to God only as he feels safe. In such an immature life, Christianity becomes a self-serving religion in which God is allowed control so long as He blesses and does not cause discomfort. Blessing and safety becomes the all consuming concern in the life of the baby Christian. The growing believer “exult[s] in tribulation” (Rom. 5:3) because he knows God is working in Him to form the character of Christ, and that’s what he wants more than anything. The growing believer accepts suffering as means of becoming more like Christ. It is important to stress that there is no real value inherent in suffering, but rather in how the believer handles the suffering by living by faith in God’s word.

       Divine suffering tests the believer’s faith, exposing those areas where he is weak and in which he needs to trust more in God; obeying His word. The believer who loves God wants to mature and become more like Christ, and praises God for the fire of suffering that burns away that which is worthless.

Steven R. Cook, D.Min.