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Nothing perplexes people of God as much as suffering
All the passages below are taken from Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “Unsearchable Riches of Christ.” The sermon was preached at Westminster Chapel, London, in 1956 and first published in 1979 and reprinted in 2004.
Nothing has so frequently perplexed God's people as the question of suffering. Why does God allow His own people to endure trials and tribulations? Why should a distinguished servant like Paul of all others ever be allowed to be a prisoner? That is why this theme is so often dealt with in the Scriptures, and particularly by this Apostle Paul. It is found in his Epistle to the Philippians, where in the first two chapters he deals with it in a most extraordinary manner. He does it particularly in writing to Timothy because this seems to have been Timothy's perpetual problem. He was perplexed by the fact that the Apostle Paul is being allowed to suffer, and that he is going to be put to death. Timothy cannot understand it, and it always depresses him. That is why Paul has to write his letters to him. Here at the beginning of the third chapter of his letter to the Ephesians the Apostle takes up this very theme. That is the purpose of this digression. It deals with this particular problem of the suffering of the godly and the righteous, and why it is that Christian people have to endure trials and tribulations in this world.
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Turning now to the Apostle's method of helping his readers and hearers we notice negatively that he does not write to them a mere general statement or send them a general word of comfort. He does not write to them and say: Well, this is most unfortunate. I have my plans and proposals, but, you know, in a world and a life like this, these things will happen. But do not be too greatly troubled, for I am sure that, eventually, everything is going to turn out well. That is not his method. What he does, you notice, is to tell them how he himself looks at it; he shows them his own attitude and reaction to events. And then he urges them to look at the problem in a like manner. He teaches them and enables them to reason it out even as he himself is reasoning it out. And I call attention to it, not only because it is an essential part of the exposition of this Epistle, but because we have here once and for ever the great principles which should always govern our thinking as we face this vexed and difficult problem. This is the message for anyone who is undergoing trials and tribulations, and who may be so much troubled as to ask, Why does God allow this? Or it may be someone who is very dear to you who is suffering. Or it may be something in the Church which is shaking your faith. Here is a great statement on this whole question. Whatever persecution you may be suffering, whatever illness or pain you may be enduring, or whatever disappointment---I do not care what it is---here is the way in which it has to be faced.
As we examine the way in which the Apostle himself looks at the problem we find that he does not utter a single word of complaint. There is not a suspicion of a grumble. He does not for a second allow the question to enter into his mind or heart, Is this fair? I have served God for years, I have travelled, I have been indefatigable, I have suffered, I have become an old man before my time in God's service---why has this come to me? There is never a suspicion of that! Not a word! No complaints, no grumbles!
Secondly, we note that Paul does not simply resign himself to trouble with a kind of stoical fortitude. Many do so! But there is nothing of that here. He does not write and say: Well, you know, you have to take the bad with the good in a world like this; you cannot have a rose without a thorn; you have to reconcile yourself to the fact that life is a mixture of good and bad, pleasure and pain, and because it is so you must not grumble and complain. You have had a good time, so do not whimper if things are beginning to go wrong. Be balanced, be steady, pull yourself together, be a man, put a little courage into your life, maintain a stiff upper lip. There is not a suspicion of such teaching! That is Stoicism, that is paganism, that is the world's so-called courage! It has nothing to do with Christianity; indeed it is almost the very antithesis of it.
The fact is that if you read this chapter quietly you must come to the conclusion that the Apostle seems to be rejoicing in the midst of his trials. There is a note of exultation here, a note of triumph. At the end in verse 13 he says, `Wherefore, I desire that ye faint not at my tribulations for you, which is your glory'. He wants the Ephesian Christians to be `more than conquerors' as he is `more than conqueror'. He is not merely putting up with his circumstances, he is going beyond that, he is exulting in his suffering. He is triumphant, he is jubilant. There is a marvellous element in this, he tells them, if they can but see it. This is characteristic New Testament teaching. I have already stated that the Apostle gives the same teaching in the Epistle to the Philippians in verse 12 of the first chapter. There, too, he is writing as a prisoner and he says, `But I would ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel'. Do not waste your tears on me or on my condition, says the Apostle. I want you to look at these things in such a way, that you will see, as I see, that all these things that have come about have happened rather `unto the furtherance of the gospel'. He virtually says, Thank God for it. In writing to Timothy he has the same note in the Second Epistle, chapter 1: `God', he says, `hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power and of love and of a sound mind' (v. 7). Again in chapter 2, 'Thou therefore endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ' (v. 3). `If we suffer, we shall also reign with him' (v. I2). And going beyond that in chapter 3 he says, `Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution' (v. 12). That is the doctrine.
But this doctrine is not confined to the Apostle Paul. We find the same teaching in the First Epistle of Peter: `Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: but rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy. If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified' (4:12-14). There, then, is the essence of the teaching. The Apostle wants these Ephesians to look at his imprisonment and his sufferings in such a way that they will really see the glory shining through it all, and will glorify God in it.
But how do Christians arrive at this position? How does the Apostle bring himself and the Ephesians to it? This is the most practical question of all. He does so not because he happens to have been born with a placid kind of temperament. His temperament was the exact opposite. Paul was a man who by nature could be easily depressed. He was naturally morbid and introspective and sensitive. His peace of mind when in tribulation was not merely a matter of temperament, but rather the end-product of a method which he employs. He asks questions, and then, having noted the answers, he works out an argument. This is his invariable method. It is precisely what he does here in this digression. The first thing you and I have to do in this Christian life is to learn that secret. Instead of allowing things to overwhelm us and to depress us, and to make us sit down and commiserate with ourselves, we must stop and look at the circumstances, and ask questions about the thing itself, not about God. Having done so we must note the answers and then work out an argument. We must put the whole matter into its context, into its setting, and relate it to the whole of the Christian faith and life. As we do so we shall find that an argument will emerge. Let us consider what it is.
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Here is Paul a prisoner. He is aware of that fact; and the Ephesians are also aware of it. Now here are the questions: How and why is he a prisoner? What is the cause of his imprisonment? Instead of commiserating with himself in the cell as he is chained to a soldier on each side, he says: I must enquire into this and ask why I am here at all; why am I a prisoner? How has it come to pass, what is the explanation, what is the reason? Then he begins to give the answers to himself and to the Ephesians. So we start by looking at the answers that are given in the first verse.
The first thing he tells us is that he is not an ordinary prisoner. His way of putting the matter is this---`For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ'. In a sense, by speaking thus he has already solved his problem. He is not Rome's prisoner. He is not in prison because of the mighty Roman Empire. He is not really Nero's prisoner. Nero is the Emperor, incidentally; but Paul is not Nero's prisoner. He is not in the prison because of Roman law; he is not in prison as all the other prisoners presumably are because of some misdemeanour or crime. Well, if not, why is he in prison?
His answer is: I am the prisoner of Christ, the Christ Jesus. What a staggering statement! Have you noticed how, with this Apostle, everything that is true of him is always expressed in terms of Christ? He is `the apostle of Christ', `the servant of Christ', he is `the minister of Christ', `the bondslave of Christ'. Watch his terms always and especially in the introductions to his Epistles. Everything is in relation to Christ, and because of Christ. And here he does not hesitate to say that he is in prison for one reason only, namely, because he is `in Christ'. He is Christ's prisoner.
This is probably what he said to himself: If I were still the man I once was, if I were still Saul of Tarsus, if I were still that Pharisee, that blasphemous, injurious person that I once was, if I were still a teacher of the Jewish law and of all the comments of the scribes and the authorities upon it, if I were still what I once was as Saul of Tarsus, I would not be in this prison. That is an absolute fact. I would still be at liberty. There is no question at all about that. Well, why am I here then? I am here because Of what happened to me that noonday on my way to Damascus. It is that event which has brought me to Rome and to this prison!
Once you begin to think in this manner you forget prison-bars and cells and discomforts and everything else. Paul was reminding himself of that amazing event in his life when he saw the face of Christ looking down upon him and heard the voice. The prison sends him back to think of his conversion and the amazing grace of God and the love of Christ. He reflects on the fact that, though he had been that blasphemous, injurious, persecuting person, Christ had nevertheless loved him and had died for him on the Cross to take his sins away, to reconcile him to God and to make him a child of God. All that came back to him. He is a prisoner of Jesus Christ. All that has happened to him as a Christian starts there.
And then he recalled the commission that Christ gave to him, as he is going to elaborate later---how by revelation Christ had made the truth plain to him. Christ had said to him; I am going to make you `a minister and a witness, delivering you from the people and from the Gentiles unto whom now I send you', that you may testify unto them. The commission! It all came back to him. If those are the thoughts that occupy your mind in a prison, it becomes a palace. You are `seated in heavenly places' though you may be suffering physically. That is the Apostle's method! He is Christ's prisoner.
But it does not stop at that! Paul also means that he is really suffering for Christ's sake, not for his own sake. He is not in prison because of any wrong he personally has committed. He is there because he is a preacher of Christ's gospel, because of his zeal for the name and the glory of Christ. He is literally suffering as a Christian, and for the sake of Christ. This to Paul was one of the most marvellous things of all. Writing to the Philippians he says, `For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake' (Phil 1:29). Do not grumble and complain, he tells them, if you are suffering for Christ's sake. Rather regard it as the supreme honour of your lives. It was in this way that these early Christians always looked at their sufferings. They thanked God that at last they had been counted worthy to suffer for their Lord's sake. They did that even when they were dying in the arena, being mauled by lions. The supreme honour, the final crown of glory, was martyrdom. That is the way to look at it! This is where the glory and the triumphing come in.
But there is still something further. Paul's sufferings were to him an absolute proof of his calling and discipleship. This is argued out in what I have already quoted from his Second Epistle to Timothy: `Yea, all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution' (3:12). That is a searching statement. It means that if we are not, in some shape or form, suffering persecution for Christ's sake, we are not Christians. You believe the Scripture to be the Word of God? You believe that Paul is an inspired apostle? Then you must accept this categorical statement: `Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution'. Therefore, if I am suffering persecution as a Christian in some shape or form, it is a proof of my discipleship. The Apostle James, in his Epistle, states that positively when he writes, `My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers trials' (1:2). Why? Because it is the proof, he says, of the calling and the discipleship of Christians. In the first chapter of his Epistle James reasons and argues it out. Paul is the prisoner of Jesus Christ in that sense also.
But the saying is true in yet another sense. One of the most amazing things the Apostle Paul ever said is found in his Epistle to the Colossians :`Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, And fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake, which is the church' (1:24). In other words, in respect of his own bodily sufferings, he has entered into the sufferings of Christ. In Philippians chapter 3 the same thought finds expression: `That I may know him, and the fellowship of his sufferings' (v.10). He needs the power of the resurrection to do that! `That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings'. In these sufferings, he says, I am filling up to the brim, as it were, what is left behind, what remains, of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for His body's
sake, which is the church. I am in prison, he says, but do not waste a tear on me, do not faint on my account. This is most glorious; I am having the greatest privilege of my life, I am making up what remains of my Lord's sufferings. He is having now the great and the high privilege of following in the very footsteps of Christ. Again, Peter brings out the same truth in his First Epistle: ‘Follow his steps', he says, `who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth; who when he suffered he threatened not' (2:21-23). That is the privilege: we are following in Christ's steps.
Finally, Paul suggests that it was his loyalty to the message that Christ had given him that was the immediate cause of his imprisonment. Note that he says `I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles'. A better way of translating that would be, `I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ on behalf of you Gentiles'---`for', `on behalf of', `you Gentiles'. What does he mean? The argument is roughly as follows: Why, precisely, is he in prison? `For this cause'---the thing to which he has referred. What really put Paul into prison was that he went everywhere preaching that the gospel of Jesus Christ was as much for the Gentiles as for the Jews. It was this that above everything else infuriated the Jews. The accounts of Paul's arrest and imprisonment in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, chapters 21 and 22, make it quite clear that that was the direct cause of his being arrested and kept in confinement and being sent to Rome. He persisted in preaching that Gentile believers were to be `fellow heirs' with Jewish believers. If he had not emphasized this doctrine, the Jews might well have allowed him to continue preaching, but, to the Jew, Paul's teaching was absolutely intolerable, it was utterly impossible. So they opposed him, they nearly killed him, and he only escaped death by the intervention of the Roman authorities. `For this cause'. So what the Apostle is really saying to these Ephesian Gentile Christians is that he is really suffering for their sakes, suffering because he persisted in saying that the Gentiles were to become the children of Abraham by faith in exactly the same way as the Jews. That you might enjoy the liberty of the gospel, I am in bonds, I am in prison, is what he told them. If I had withheld that aspect of the truth I would still be free; but I want you to know, he says, that I am suffering gladly for your sakes---I am rejoicing in it. I am in prison, but you are enjoying the glorious liberty of the children of God.
What a man! What a Christian! Some of us would be much more popular in the Church, as well as in the world, if we did not say certain things. If a preacher wants to be popular he must never offend. But Paul did not want to be popular. He was given the truth, and he preached the whole truth; he withheld nothing. If he had only withheld this particular aspect all would have been well. But no, he says, I was told to preach it, my Lord sent me to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews. So he is suffering gladly for their sakes.
But Paul goes even further. Notice his words in verse 13---`I desire that ye faint not at my tribulations for you, which is your glory'. There is a glory for them in his sufferings. How does it come about? We can seek an answer by asking what value the story of the martyrs has for us. We read the lives of the saints and the martyrs, but what is the precise value of the death of the martyrs to us? Why should we read Foxe's Book of Martyrs? Why should we read about the Scottish Covenanters? Why should we read of all the men and women who have laid down their lives for the Christian faith? The Apostle tells these Ephesians that his sufferings should reassure them with respect to, the truth about themselves. Why is Paul in prison? The answer is, because he is so absolutely certain of the message that Christ has died for the Gentile as well as for the Jew. Though he knew it would mean prison and probably death, he nevertheless preached it because it was true. What a tremendous strengthening of the faith of the Ephesians would result from this! They would say to themselves, Paul must be absolutely certain of it; he would never undergo suffering in this way if there was any doubt about it at all! He is so sure about it, as he tells us, that rather than withhold it he will suffer anything for it. This then must be right, this is the truth about us, we are made one body with the Jews in Christ Jesus. We see, therefore, that Paul's suffering focuses attention on this most glorious aspect of the gospel from their standpoint; and this explains why he goes on to tell them in detail in the following verses how it was that Christ had revealed it to him personally, individually, in a special manner.
The Ephesian believers are being reminded that Christ has died for them and that his servant Paul is now, in his turn, suffering for them and is ready even to die for them, and that he regards it as a privilege. Many of them were but slaves and very ordinary and common people, but he tells them that the Son of God died for them, and that he as their Apostle considers it a great privilege to be in prison for them. When a man like Paul says a thing like that, you want to stand up and sing and shout. You feel unworthy, and yet you are aware of the privilege, the wonder and the glory of it all. And at the same time, in suffering in this way, what a wonderful example the Apostle gives Christians as to how these things should be faced. Is there anything that is more strengthening to faith than to read of the death of the martyrs? If ever you feel doubtful or hesitant about the Christian faith, if ever you feel the world attracting you, and wonder whether you should go on suffering persecution as a student, for example, or in your profession, or in your business, read the stories of the death of the martyrs. Mark the end of the perfect man, says the Psalmist (37:37). `Remember them which have the rule over you', says the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, `considering the end of their conversation'. Look at the way in which they died. `Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever' (13:7-8). There is nothing that so strengthens faith as that! These men faced the tyrants and `the lions' gory mane' triumphantly because they knew Christ and the reality of the truth.
The Apostle is telling these Ephesians that if they but see the meaning of his imprisonment truly, if they but view these things in the right way, it will bring them into a knowledge of the glory of the Christian life such as they had never had before. What Paul is saying is that the Christian life to him is everything; Christ is his `all and in all'. The Christian life is so glorious and so wonderful that it is much more precious to him than his personal liberty. It is much more precious than life itself. What he is really saying is what he said to the Philippians in the words, `To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain' and `that I might depart and be with Christ, which is far better' (1:21, 23).
There, then, is the beginning of the Apostle's argument; there are the elements, the fundamental principles. Are you rejoicing in tribulations? Are you discouraged by what has happened to you or by what is happening to the Church? If you are suffering as a Christian, face again the arguments as Paul presents them. Look at them, believe them, apply them, and end by standing up and thanking God, and glorying in the fact that unto you also `it has been given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake' (Phil 1:29). `I Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles.' Have you understood it? [15-24]
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