Making Christ Known Through Suffering

Sunday I preached one of the most difficult sermons to date at Generations Church. Not only did my teaching text have a difficult verse, but it also had a difficult meaning an application. I have written out a portion of my sermon that covers suffering for the sake of others.

The letter of Colossians is written to a church by the apostle Paul. He wants this church to know that they have been following the real Jesus. The feeling that they are missing out on a fuller spiritual experience has been evoked by false teachers through a cheap trick.

Paul can’t counter these false teachers in person because Paul is in prison. For those who may not know the backstory for Colossians, Paul didn’t plant the church. But, Paul introduced Jesus to a guy named Epaphras who then started this church. This church is filled with people from different backgrounds and ethnicities.

So far in this letter to the Colossians: he has praised this church for their impact on the world. He has reminded them that they aren’t missing something. It’s not Jesus+. After this long build-up, Paul as he often does gives them an example of sorts. This example comes from his life.

Paul is a guy who had power. He had comfort. He was in control. He had the approval of others. He gives that up when he encounters Jesus. Here’s how he describes what he is doing to the followers of Jesus…

24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I am completing in my flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for his body, that is, the church. 25 I have become its servant, according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.

– Colossians 1:24-26

This first verse is difficult. Is something missing in Christ’s sacrifice for us? The short answer is no. Nothing is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.

Paul’s point is that he is suffering for the sake of others so that Christ is made known and mature believers are grown.

Paul’s claim is steeped in the backstory of God’s chosen people. Israel’s experiences of affliction throughout its history—particularly Egyptian slavery, the Babylonian exile, and subsequent oppression under the Syrians and Romans—is understood as part and parcel of God’s redemptive purposes. The age of suffering was limited, and the age to come would dawn soon and God would judge the measures used.

Paul is not attaching atoning value whatever to his own sufferings for the church. The term ‘afflictions of Christ’ speaks, rather, of those ministerial sufferings which Paul bears because he represents Jesus Christ.

Christ’s sufferings climaxed in the cross are all-sufficient. Peace, reconciliation, and right standing with God are its results. At the same time, Paul is also convinced that this gospel must be proclaimed, received in faith, and implemented in everyday life in order for God’s redemptive purposes to be achieved.

The type of suffering that Paul is speaking to is the result of the verbal proclamation of Jesus as King that’s a direct assault on one’s culture. This is not the general consequences of living in a fractured world.

The reason the Colossian people are suffering and the reason for their prior success in impacting others are their following Jesus. However, there were these teachers who advocated they missed part of the gospel because of their suffering. Let’s get rid of it through intense self-discipline and seeking individual spiritual experiences. They could be described as ascetics or mystics. Here’s where they differ from the core of the gospel.

Ascetics focus on their holiness, on their spiritual growth, and on their perfection. These mystics focus on spirituality removed from community. Paul followed in the footsteps of Jesus and was an others-centered person. Paul found holiness, spiritual growth, and maturity when he pursued these things for others.

Here’s the temptation as you focus on resolutions or goals….If your goals and resolutions are purely for yourself and have no benefit to others, then you’ve missed the “for” aspect of faith. Read those verses again. Suffering “for” the body. I was given a commission “for” you.

A self-focused lifestyle is a Jesus+ lifestyle. A Jesus+ lifestyle doesn’t work when suffering comes because whatever you have added to Jesus will tell you it’s not worth it.

The cost of suffering begs the question: What type of motivation does one have to willingly put themselves out there in the awkward and uncertain?

Paul’s goal is to make God’s message fully known. In part, the message holds a “mystery that’s been hidden for ages and generations.” Paul is referring to the process by which God was going to rescue and redeem his creation. The mystery was “when” and “how.”  The mystery was not the “what.” In Jesus, what was once pixelated is now in 4K.

Paul is now working to advance this message and bring clarity to the mystery by participating in God’s mission. Here’s an example of how these principles are applied because as American Christians we don’t always understand suffering. The following was taken from two separate articles.

“Over 100 members of the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, China, were arrested beginning Sunday, December 9, 2018. Among those taken away were Pastor Wang Yi, senior pastor of Early Rain, and his wife, Jiang Rong.

On December 26, 2019, Wang Yi was secretly tried at the Chengdu Intermediate People’s Court. On December 30, the court announced that Wang Yi was sentenced to 9 years of criminal detention and fined 50,000 RMB. This is the longest sentence given to a house church pastor in a decade.” You can read Wang Yi’s full statement on Civil Disobedience here. I have quoted the portation I read below.

On the basis of the teachings of the Bible and the mission of the gospel, I respect the authorities God has established in China. For God deposes kings and raises up kings. This is why I submit to the historical and institutional arrangements of God in China.

As a pastor of a Christian church, I have my own understanding and views, based on the Bible, about what righteous order and good government is. At the same time, I am filled with anger and disgust at the persecution of the church by this Communist regime, at the wickedness of their depriving people of the freedoms of religion and of conscience. But changing social and political institutions is not the mission I have been called to, and it is not the goal for which God has given his people the gospel.

For all hideous realities, unrighteous politics, and arbitrary laws manifest the cross of Jesus Christ, the only means by which every Chinese person must be saved. They also manifest the fact that true hope and a perfect society will never be found in the transformation of any earthly institution or culture but only in our sins being freely forgiven by Christ and in the hope of eternal life.

As a pastor, my firm belief in the gospel, my teaching, and my rebuking of all evil proceeds from Christ’s command in the gospel and from the unfathomable love of that glorious King. Every man’s life is extremely short, and God fervently commands the church to lead and call any man to repentance who is willing to repent. Christ is eager and willing to forgive all who turn from their sins. This is the goal of all the efforts of the church in China—to testify to the world about our Christ, to testify to the Middle Kingdom about the Kingdom of Heaven, to testify to earthly, momentary lives about heavenly, eternal life. This is also the pastoral calling that I have received.

For this reason, I accept and respect the fact that this Communist regime has been allowed by God to rule temporarily. As the Lord’s servant John Calvin said, wicked rulers are the judgment of God on a wicked people, the goal being to urge God’s people to repent and turn again toward Him. For this reason, I am joyfully willing to submit myself to their enforcement of the law as though submitting to the discipline and training of the Lord.

At the same time, I believe that this Communist regime’s persecution against the church is a greatly wicked, unlawful action. As a pastor of a Christian church, I must denounce this wickedness openly and severely. The calling that I have received requires me to use non-violent methods to disobey those human laws that disobey the Bible and God. My Savior Christ also requires me to joyfully bear all costs for disobeying wicked laws.

But this does not mean that my personal disobedience and the disobedience of the church is in any sense “fighting for rights” or political activism in the form of civil disobedience, because I do not have the intention of changing any institutions or laws of China. As a pastor, the only thing I care about is the disruption of man’s sinful nature by this faithful disobedience and the testimony it bears for the cross of Christ.

As a pastor, my disobedience is one part of the gospel commission. Christ’s great commission requires of us great disobedience. The goal of disobedience is not to change the world but to testify about another world.

…The Bible teaches us that, in all matters relating to the gospel and human conscience, we must obey God and not men. For this reason, spiritual disobedience and bodily suffering are both ways we testify to another eternal world and to another glorious King.

This is why I am not interested in changing any political or legal institutions in China. I’m not even interested in the question of when the Communist regime’s policies persecuting the church will change. Regardless of which regime I live under now or in the future, as long as the secular government continues to persecute the church, violating human consciences that belong to God alone, I will continue my faithful disobedience. For the entire commission God has given me is to let more Chinese people know through my actions that the hope of humanity and society is only in the redemption of Christ, in the supernatural, gracious sovereignty of God.

If God decides to use the persecution of this Communist regime against the church to help more Chinese people to despair of their futures, to lead them through a wilderness of spiritual disillusionment and through this to make them know Jesus, if through this he continues disciplining and building up his church, then I am joyfully willing to submit to God’s plans, for his plans are always benevolent and good.

Precisely because none of my words and actions are directed toward seeking and hoping for societal and political transformation, I have no fear of any social or political power. For the Bible teaches us that God establishes governmental authorities in order to terrorize evildoers, not to terrorize doers of good. If believers in Jesus do no wrong then they should not be afraid of dark powers. Even though I am often weak, I firmly believe this is the promise of the gospel. It is what I’ve devoted all of my energy to. It is the good news that I am spreading throughout Chinese society.

I believe we need to take a sober look at our lives. We can learn from our brothers and sisters in places like China and the Middle East.

Our priorities as followers of Jesus must be to not live in a space that we can meticulously control or pursue comfort but to live and work for a coming kingdom.

In our country, the type of religious devotion present by both Wang Yi and the Apostle Paul seems so foreign.

Christianity is the only religion in the world the proposes an argument to endure suffering for the sake of others. We serve a suffering Savior. We have a hope of vindication on the other side of suffering. May we live our lives in such a way that it communicates everything we do is “because of Jesus.”

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