God's Undeserved Gift to the World: Christian Sufferers
Thoughts on Hebrews 11:37-39
They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, though commended through their faith . . .
Jesus made it plain that all his followers must take up their cross and follow him (Mark 8:34). He made it plain that if people called Jesus “Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household” (Matthew 10:25). “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20).
For those who devote their lives to spreading the gospel, the Bible promises even more suffering. For example, Jesus told Ananias to tell Paul, “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16). This suffering is strategic. It has a gracious design. It is meant to reveal the love of Christ to the world.
Paul explains that design like this: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions” (Colossians 1:24). We know from Philippians 2:30 that “filling up what is lacking” does not mean add to what is there, but carry what is there to those for whom it is meant.
So for the Philippians, that meant Epaphroditus would carry their love to Paul in the form of gifts. Here in Colossians 1:24, it means that Paul will carry “Christ’s afflictions” to the world in his own “sufferings.” The design of Paul’s suffering is to embody and display Christ’s suffering. When the world sees a missionary suffer in the act of bringing them Christ, they are seeing the love Christ had for them on the cross.
The world does not deserve the gift of Christian suffering. But God gives it anyway. Hebrews 11:27-38 describes some of this Christian suffering and how the world does not deserve it. “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy.” These last words mean that the world does not deserve the gift of these suffering Christians. But God keeps on giving them.
How are these suffering saints a gift to the world? The answer lies in their faith. These all were “commended through their faith” (v. 39). That is, they were approved by God. Their suffering was not owing to lack of faith. Rather, the worth of their suffering lay precisely in their faith. How so?
Notice in Hebrews 11 that sometimes God works miracles of rescue through suffering (Hebrews 11:27-35a). And sometimes he gives the faith to endure misery and death (Hebrews 11:35b-39). The common denominator in the faith that escapes and the faith that endures is that in both God is treasured above liberty and life. The one who escapes says, “Jesus is better than what I gain.” The one who dies says, “Jesus is better than what I lose.” That is the essence of faith: Jesus trusted and valued above all.
That is why these suffering Christians—especially suffering missionaries—are a gift to the world. Their Jesus-sustained suffering embodies the gospel-truth that Jesus is more valuable than all that life can give and all that death can take. What a vivid proclamation of the cross! This truth is the most precious gift that a Christian can give to the world.
The world does not deserve it. “Of whom the world was not worthy.” But we give it anyway. I pray that you will have an all-satisfying faith in Jesus when the time comes to give the gift of suffering to the world. Prepare for this by knowing Jesus deeply.
Preparing with you to give,
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