In this week's lesson, we hear about what happens to Saul (or Paul) after his encounter with the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus. As he sits waiting, blinded and confused, the Lord instructs one of his disciples, Ananias, to go and minister to him. Ananias, being familiar with Saul and his persecution of the church, is understandably confused by these instructions and questions Jesus (I always love when people do this in scripture). Jesus' response is pretty clear: "Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
As Cody pointed out, the suffering that Jesus promises for Paul isn't meant as a punishment for the sins of his former life. The hope of the Gospel is that all of our sins - past, present, and future - are paid for by Christ on the cross. This means that the full wrath of God against the elect is satisfied by Jesus' sacrificial death, once and for all time. Thus, there can be no more "punishment" for us to bear. Therefore, the suffering that Jesus is talking about in the life of Paul (and in the lives of all believers) must have some different and greater purpose. Let's investigate that idea.
The Apostle Paul discusses the topic of suffering at great length in his letters to the various churches of his day. Likely because he was, as promised, quite familiar with the topic...as were they. And this still holds true for Christians today. After all, one of Jesus' final lessons to his disciples was to expect the world to hate them as it had first hated him (John 15:18-27). One such example comes from 2 Corinthians 4:8-10 where Paul writes, "We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies."
In this passage, we see Paul describe four different types of suffering in the lives of believers: physical (afflicted), mental (perplexed), emotional (persecuted), and spiritual (struck down, i.e. brought low). Sometimes we suffer in one of these ways, while at other times we may experience several of them at once. Regardless, the takeaway is that, one way or another, we will experience suffering. But why?
He goes on to answer that very question in verse 10, where he explains that our physical experiences with suffering (following after Jesus in death...taking up our cross, if you will), are a part of the transformation process, where we are being remade into the image of Christ through the power of the Gospel in our lives. If you want to purify fine metals and remove any of the imperfections from the ore, you need to expose them to tremendous heat. In the same way, exposing things to heat is also used to kill germs and bacteria that can make us sick (that's why, for example, we cook our food). This is the perfect metaphor for how God works in our lives by allowing us suffer. Like a master craftsman or a surgeon, he is stripping away the things that inevitably harm us and separate us from him.
It isn't cruelty, nor is it sadistic entertainment for a bored diety, as the enemy wants you to believe; but rather it is part of God's good purposes and his love for us. Suffering makes us strong by exposing our utter weakness and our deep need. By showing us that we don't have "the right stuff," our suffering frees us up from relying on ourselves and our abilities, and focuses our hope upon the one who alone is worthy of our confidence.
It seems counter-intuitive, that in weakness we would be made strong, but that is the overwhelming message of Paul's writing. Later in 2 Corinthians 12, he writes, "Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong." Clearly, he had learned something from all of the suffering he himself had experienced. His tone isn't that of a man who is broken and defeated by life, but rather that of a mature believer who has willingly given his life to Christ.
Who wouldn't want to experience that kind of faith? And yet, how many of us would sign up for Paul's experiences (beatings, starvation, sickness, etc.)? However, the two are supernaturally linked together. Suffering empowers faith. Time and time again, we see among the "heroes of the faith" from the pages of scripture, one common theme...a lot of suffering. So, should we pray for and seek out suffering? I don't think that's what scripture teaches. But I do believe we shouldn't flee from suffering at all costs.
Too often, we (myself included) are far too content living lives of comfort. We aren't willing to be vulnerable or sacrifice in any way for the sake of the Gospel. In so doing, we miss out on what God is teaching us, and then wonder why our faith is weak and our devotion is lacking. When we are willing to experience discomfort in life, we are able to discover the freedom of dependence upon Christ, and the maturity of faith that comes with it. As Tim Keller puts it in his book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, "You don’t really know Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have."
If you missed this week's sermon (or just want to listen again), follow the link below to listen. Or subscribe to our podcast in iTunes.
Part 20 - A Chosen Instrument
Questions discussed in this sermon:
1. Who is Ananias?
2. What does it mean that Saul is a chosen instrument?
3. How does Saul's conversion change his perspective on life?
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