Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Redemption of Suffering Through Resurrection

The following is the text from a biblical meditation on suffering and the resurrection of Christ, a message preached through a translator (the multi-talented and always-wonderful Rosalyn Lo) in the Cantonese worship service at Edmonton Chinese Baptist Church.

NOTE: Particularly acute observers will note that this post bears a striking resemblance to an earlier blog entry ... I am indeed aware of that.

July 11, 2010 – Suffering in Light of the Resurrection of Christ

Suffering is a universal fact of human life. Everybody experiences pain, loneliness, grief, or sorrow - in one way or another, we all hurt. As a teenaged atheist, I despised suffering, particularly because it seemed pointless. There was no hope in the midst of grief, no redemption in the midst of pain; nothing to mitigate or offset the severity of suffering. However, coming to know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord has changed the way that I perceive suffering. This morning, I want to suggest to you that the resurrection of Jesus Christ informs and transforms our experience of grief, sickness, pain, “senseless” tragedy, and persecution - suffering is redeemed and made comprehensible through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The empty tomb assures our own bodily resurrection and eternal life and gives us an eternal perspective that looks beyond our temporal situation.

God’s Word is surprisingly blunt in its presentation of pain and suffering. Nowhere does the Bible suggest that God’s people can avoid suffering. When I began reading the Bible, I came to love the book of Job. There was something transfixing about the brutal honesty in the account of his life. Job suffered through worse trials than I can imagine enduring. His material possessions were wiped out in a single disastrous, senselessly-tragic day, as were all of his children. Then his health was devastated, and he found himself alone, miserably scraping his pus-covered body with a shard of pottery.

But, O, fortunate Job! He had good friends, who came to comfort him with their loving presence. Then they shared their wisdom with Job – for example, in 15:20 - “All his days the wicked man suffers torment”, insinuating that Job was being punished for some wrongdoing he had committed against God. Job thanks them for their kindness and concern - “I have heard many things like these; miserable comforters are you all!” (Job. 16:2) The truth is that God’s people will suffer, and not always because of their own wrongdoing or sin.

The greatest enemy of man, the greatest source of suffering, is death. When my great-grandmother died, I asked where she was now. I was told that after we die, there’s nothing else - this life is all there is. There’s no life after death. I remember thinking, “That stinks.” The Apostle Paul writes, in 1 Corinthians 15:13-19 -

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

Paul understood the significance of a worldview which denied the afterlife. If this life is, as many believe, all that there is, then there is no point and no hope. And so I grieved without hope. But faith in Jesus Christ makes a qualitative difference in how we approach grief. We no longer mourn “like those who have no hope”, simply because, as followers of Jesus Christ, we do have hope. This is the transformation which is wrought in the light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the next section of 1 Corinthians 15, we read (v. 20-26):

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

Our experience of suffering need not be without hope, because Christ has conquered death. There is, in my perspective, no greater joy than the certain hope of my own bodily resurrection after my death, which is assured by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” At the end of 1 Corinthians 15, we read (v. 51-57):

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory."
"Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?"
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Resurrection is integrally tied to the Crucifixion. Easter Sunday is preceded by Good Friday. In His death, Jesus bore the weight of our sins. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10) Through His death, Jesus takes our sins upon Himself. If our sins are not taken away, then our resurrection is still hopeless - if we are still marred by sin, then we are incapable of standing in the presence of God, and therefore would spend our eternity in the torment of a godless hell. The hope of the resurrection is only realized in our lives through the acceptance of the Cross. Having accepted the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord, we then can eagerly anticipate our own resurrection to eternal life.

The resurrection also puts our suffering into an eternal perspective.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
(2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Paul does not minimize our experience of suffering; rather, he claims that the resurrection of Christ, and the assurance of our own resurrection to eternal life, puts our suffering into proper perspective. You might say, “Well, easy for Paul to say that. He’s experienced the depth of suffering that I have.” Well, that’s true. But remember that Paul runs through a lengthy list of his own suffering. 2 Corinthians 11:23-30 -

Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?

Yes, your suffering is real, and it may be severe. Most people I know have experienced far more severe grief or pain than I have. Nonetheless, the suffering of Jesus Christ is deeper still. The only perfect man ever to live, He was wrongfully accused, mocked, beaten, abandoned by all his friends, and executed by crucifixion. Besides this intense physical and emotional suffering, He also experienced deep spiritual suffering - He bore the weight of all our sins, causing His heavenly Father to turn His back on Him. “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) - a cry which bursts forth from the isolation, the abandonment, that God the Son feels as God the Father rejects and judges Him because He bears the sins of the world.

The point is that we are not alone in our suffering. All of the spiritual giants who have gone before us have suffered likewise. Their sufferings have not been mirror images of our own - but they have shared in our sufferings as we have all shared in the sufferings of Christ. But “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” (2 Corinthians 4:17) It is so difficult, in the moment of suffering, to consider our troubles to be “light and momentary”; but it is essential, as Paul urges us, to “fix our eyes … on what is unseen”. It is our hope for our resurrection to eternal life, which is founded upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which enables us to put our suffering into a tolerable perspective.

John records the glimpse of heaven granted to him in a vision:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."
(Revelation 21:1-4)

The resurrection that we await initiates us into a new order. Gone are the sources of our suffering. Grief is no more, because “there will be no more death or mourning”. Sickness and pain are done away with. Never again will we experience loneliness or hopelessness, for “God himself will be with [us] and be [our] God.” Heaven, simply put, is a place where all of the things that cause suffering will have been abolished. This is the glorious assurance that the resurrection of Jesus Christ brings to our lives! We are assured of our own resurrection; and we know that our resurrection will be to a place of perfection, without any more suffering. While that does not remove or trivialize our present sufferings, it does put them into perspective, and our future hope enables us to persevere and endure the hard times in this life.

Everybody suffers in one way or another, but the resurrection of Jesus Christ transforms the way in which we experience and endure our suffering. We do not suffer hopelessly - rather, we have the assurance of our own resurrection to eternal life. We are able to put our suffering into eternal perspective, remembering that the glory that awaits us in heaven far outweighs the nature of our suffering here and now. None of this makes suffering something to be desired or to be invited, nor does it trivialize the difficulty and hardship of suffering - but in the light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are able to face suffering with hope, assurance, and comfort.

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