The Growth of Suffering

Notes below based on sermon preached at One Church Home on July 17, 2022

Obey, or obedience, is such a challenging word. We bristle at the notion that someone or something (e.g., a rule or law) would tell us what we must or must not do. As free-willed beings, we just don’t like being bossed around by anyone, even God.

Combine obedience with suffering (i.e., obedience through suffering—Hebrews 5:8), and it’s a recipe we’d prefer not to whip up, let alone taste.

The Bible talks a lot about obedience—to God, to His commandments, to our parents. It is an essential aspect of knowing Him, loving Him, and receiving His blessings. But do we really understand what obedience means?

Did you know that there is no word in the Hebrew Bible that means obey or obedience in the same way we usually think about it in English? The Hebrew word translated as obey in our English Bibles is shema.

Shema in Hebrew is best understood as hearing—not just the perception of sound by the ear but understanding with the heart in such a way that we then take action based on what we have heard. To really know God, we must listen to Him and then do what He says.

In Luke 11:28, Jesus said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”

And there’s more. It’s important to understand that it matters not just that we hear and obey but also why. Motivation matters. God is looking for shema levot….for hearing hearts. A hearing heart is committed to listening, understanding, and then doing the will of the Father. It is action that is motivated by love and rooted in trust.

In John 14:15, Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commands.

I John 5:3
In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands…

And here’s what is so amazing. The very commands God asks us to hear and obey are not arbitrary or capricious; they are for our good.

As parents, we don’t tell our children to eat vegetables to torture them or stay out of the street because we want to keep them from having fun. We do it because we love them and want to protect them.

Remember from week 1, God doesn’t just act loving or do good things, He is love and He is good.

And because God can only act toward us with love and with goodness, even His commands—the things He asks us to do and not do—are also loving and good.

We can hear and respond in obedience because we trust His love and His goodness.

This is especially important as we face suffering. Remember our anchor passage for this series; the goal is not to lose heart.

2 Corinthians 4:16-18
16 Therefore, we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. 17 For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, 18 while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.

In Pastor Ian’s sermon, he shared the Greek words for learned and sufferedemathen and epathen. Jesus had to experience or endure not just any suffering, but suffering beyond anything we can conceive. It was not just unimaginable emotional and physical suffering—rejection, betrayal, beating, and crucifixion, but also spiritual suffering beyond human comprehension—taking upon himself the sins of us all, separation from His Father.

Matthew 27:46
About three in the afternoon, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli,[a] lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

Billy Graham explains that “as He died, all our sins were placed on Him, and He became the final and complete sacrifice for our sins. And in that moment, He was banished from the presence of God, for sin cannot exist in God’s presence. His cry speaks of this truth; He endured the separation from God that you and I deserve.” (Read Isaiah 53 and John 19 this week to remind yourself all that He suffered for you.)

John Piper says that in doing so, “He moved from untested or untried obedience to fully tested, fully tried obedience.

And it was only in demonstrating perfect obedience that was fully tested and tried that He could be perfected. This doesn’t mean that he was imperfect before; instead, it means mature or complete in his experience as a human, meeting the qualifications to serve as our High Priest.

Hebrews 2:10
In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered.

So if Jesus had to endure suffering while remaining obedient to his Father’s will to become complete, perfected, to glorify His Father, don’t we?

Romans 8:17
Now, if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

This verse is complex so let’s dig in a bit to understand what it does (and does not) mean.

First, we must become His children in order to be heirs—to receive His inheritance.

And what is His inheritance? It is Himself, His presence. There is a formula throughout all of Scripture for the covenant God made with His children:
I will be your God.
You will be my children.
I will dwell with you forever.

That has been God’s plan since before the foundation of the world—to make for Himself a family to share the perfect love of the Trinity.

Ephesians 1:4-5
4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.

We become His children through spiritual rebirth.

John 3:3
Jesus replied, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

There is only one way that spiritual rebirth can happen, and this is the reason that Christ had to suffer, the good news of the gospel, the redemption story:

John 3:16
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

John 14:6
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Isaiah 53:5
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.

This is so important: once you have been born again, you are a joint heir with Christ to the promise of eternal life with God. Remember from week two that justification is an event in which the finished work of Jesus is applied with immediate and eternal results. We experience a permanent status change from condemned to righteous.

Titus 3:4-7
4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.

The second “if” of Romans 17 (if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory) does not mean that our justification is contingent on our own suffering.

Rather, after the event of justification comes the process of sanctification…the Holy Spirit working in and through us to transform us into His image. Sanctification is both progressive and experiential.

The English word “sanctify” comes from the Hebrew word “qâdash.” It means “to consecrate,” “be holy or separate.”

In Pastor Ian’s very first message to One Church Home, he said that as the church (the Greek word, “Ekklesia“), we are the “called out ones.

Called out of what?

In John 15:19 NKJV, Jesus said:
If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world; therefore, the world hates you.

Even while we live in this world, we are chosen by God and called to live apart from worldly values, beliefs, and actions. We are to live “set apart.” That doesn’t mean isolated. It means different…as Jesus was different.

As we live “set apart”—in obedience to His will and His ways, the Spirit makes us more and more like Jesus.

2 Corinthians 3:18
And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

Our obedience in the midst of suffering is part of our progressive experience of sanctification. We continue to hear His voice and do what He says.

This is not to suggest that our experience or demonstration of obedience in suffering is to be compared to that of our Savior—either in its magnitude or its effect.

Alexander Maclaren writes in his Expositions of Holy Scripture that “Christ’s suffering stands as a thing by itself and unapproachable, a solitary pillar rising up, …to which all men everywhere are to turn with the one thought, ‘I can do nothing like that; I need to do nothing like it; it has been done once, and once for all; and what I have to do is, simply to lie down before Him, and let the power and the blessings of that death and those sufferings flow into my heart.’

In fact, on our own, we are wholly incapable of obedience in suffering, and we are indeed incapable of our own justification. But the same Spirit of God that empowered our rebirth also empowers our sanctification.

Philippians 2:13
for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

The Holy Spirit living inside us changes our desires, making us want to please Him, and at the same time, gives us the ability to do so.

It is in the midst of suffering that we experience the reality of His presence and His promises in ways that we otherwise would not. We come to truly know Him.

Job had been a godly and upright man, a man abundantly blessed by God. Yet it was not until he suffered greatly—until he experienced God in adversity and not just in prosperity—that he said in Job 42:5, “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.

The focus is always on Him, even and especially in our sorrow and suffering.

John Piper writes that “[God] beckons us into the obedience of suffering not to demonstrate the strength of our devotion to duty, or to reveal the vigor of our moral resolve, or to prove the heights of our tolerance for pain, but rather to manifest, in childlike faith, the infinite preciousness of his all-satisfying promises — the all-satisfying greatness and beauty of his own glory as the fulfillment of all of them.

Fix your eyes on the unseen promises of God and continue to listen to Him, and do what He says as you walk through suffering. Allow Him to use your suffering and obedience to draw you closer to Himself, revealing more of Himself to you, transforming and perfecting you into the image of His Son.

Note: all scripture references are from the New International Version. (2011) BibleGateway.com

Questions for reflection or discussion: 

How does it change your perspective to think about obedience as loving God?

In what ways do you struggle to trust that His ways (including His commandments) are loving and good?

Take some time to think about or preferably write down times that He has demonstrated His faithfulness to you—especially in suffering. Keep those in a journal or in your Bible to read and remind yourself, to strengthen your heart and your faith when challenges come.

What does it mean to you that you are His child, chosen before the foundation of the world and that as His child, you are an heir to the glory of His very presence forever?

Can you think of a time when you came to know Him better as you listened to Him and followed Him through suffering? How did that experience transform you and make you more like Jesus?

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