We’re continuing our study of Michael J. Gorman’s Inhabiting the Cruciform God. We are now well-beyond the book, but continuing to explore its implications.
A vital part of the story of the cross is the prophecy of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah –
(Isa 53:9-12) He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. 10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. 11 After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
Here we see the Servant as intercessor, sin-bearer, self-emptier, and justifier — and all this is produced by his suffering. Suffering is a central theme of Isaiah’s understanding of the work of Jesus.
In Acts 2, Peter explains to the crowd at Pentecost that Jesus’ sufferings are evidence that this prophecy has been fulfilled. Peter said the same thing to the temple authorities in Acts 3. This sets the stage for –
(Acts 5:40-41) His speech persuaded them. They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. 41 The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.
“Flogged” means to scourge, that is, to beat with whips up to 39 times. It was a brutal, horrible punishment — so brutal it’s unconstitutional in the US and illegal in most Western nations. And the apostles rejoiced! Why? Because they got to suffer along with Jesus. When was the last time you heard on sermon on this one?
The story of Paul is similar. Whan God sent Ananias to him to baptize him, Ananias didn’t come with a tract on the evils of the sinner’s prayer or a lesson how God would bring him prosperity and make all his neuroses disappear through improved self-esteem. No, he preached suffering –
(Acts 9:15-16) But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
I’ll bet the marketing consultants at Ananias’s church were pretty upset over this one! Can you imagine a billboard campaign built on suffering?
Not surprisingly, since Paul’s conversion began with a lesson on suffering, suffering made its way into the core of his theology –
(Rom 5:1-4) Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope.
Paul begins with classic Reformation theology. We are justified through faith, bringing peace and grace. But then it gets to the part you don’t read about in the debates. You see, he concludes that our justification, peace, and grace naturally lead to suffering, which ultimately produces hope. I thought we started with hope! But Paul says the Christian experience begins in suffering, which leads to hope. When was the last time you heard that one on the radio?
Much of Rom 5 anticipates chapter 8 –
(Rom 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.
And this is another tough one. We are co-heirs with Christ of the new heavens and new earth (inheritance under the law is about the land, and the land to Christians is the new heavens and new earth) — that is, we have hope “if … we share in his sufferings.” Again, not popular sermon material.
Now, to rich, comfortable Americans, even in this second worst recession in our history, these are difficult passages. We don’t suffer. Not really. In fact, we are so unaccustomed to suffering that we are outraged when we fail to get our way in Congress or the legislature. After all, this is a Christian nation. No suffering allowed here, not even a legislative defeat.
We rejoice over not suffering. The apostles taught to rejoice in suffering. Something isn’t quite right, is it?