Preaching and the Suffering of the Preacher

Preachers, Do Not Begrudge the Seminary of Suffering | Rom Lectures | Trinity Evangelical Divinity School | Deerfield, Illinois


If the ultimate aim of preaching is the glory of God through Jesus Christ, and if God is most glorified in our people when they are most satisfied in him, and if suffering threatens that satisfaction in God, and must come, then we should preach so as to help our people say with the psalmist, from their heart, “The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life” (Psalm 63:3), and to say with Paul, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).

We must preach with a passion to produce people whose satisfaction in God is so solid and so deep and so unshakable that suffering and death — losing everything this world can give — will not make our people murmur or curse God, but rest in the promise, “In his presence is fullness of joy, at his right hand are pleasures for evermore” (Psalm 16:11). How shall we preach like that?

Suffer and Rejoice

A hundred things could be said. I will mention two in this message. The preacher must suffer, and the preacher must rejoice. The preacher himself must be hurt in the ministry, and the preacher must be happy in God. Follow the three generations of preaching with me from Christ through the apostle Paul to Timothy.

Jesus

Jesus Christ came into the world to suffer. He took on human flesh so that there would be a body to torture and kill (Hebrews 2:14). Suffering was the heart of his ministry. “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). “Though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead” (Luke 24:46). “And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). When Jesus preached, he preached as one whose suffering embodied his message. He is absolutely unique in this. His suffering was the salvation that he preached.

“If there is anything left to hope in, it is God alone, who raises the dead.”

But even though he was unique, and our suffering as preachers will never be the salvation of our people in the same way, nevertheless he calls us to join him in this suffering, and makes it part of our ministry and, in great measure, the power of our message. When they wanted to follow him he said, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:19–20).

In other words, Do you really want to follow me? Know what you called to! “A slave is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). “If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign the members of his household” (Matthew 10:25)! “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (John 20:21). Or as Peter put it, “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).

Paul

And specifically concerning the apostle Paul, the risen Christ said, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:16). Paul understood his own sufferings as a necessary extension of Christ’s for the sake of the church. So he said to the Colossians, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24). His sufferings did not complete the atoning worth of Christ’s sufferings. You can’t complete perfection. They completed, rather, the extension of those sufferings in person — in a suffering representative — to those for whom Christ suffered.

Paul had to suffer in the ministry of the gospel. It was an essential extension of the sufferings of Christ. Why? Besides extending the sufferings of Christ in his own suffering to others, there are other reasons. One of his testimonies gives another answer:

For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8–9)

Notice the purpose of this suffering: “So that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead.” This is not the purpose of Satan, and it is not the purpose of Paul’s enemies. It is the purpose of God. God ordained the suffering of his apostle so that he would be radically and totally dependent on nothing else but God. All is about to be lost on this earth. If there is anything left to hope in, it is God alone, who raises the dead. That is all. Paul’s sufferings are designed to throw him back again and again on God alone as his hope and treasure.

But that is not the end of God’s purpose. 2 Corinthians 1:8–9 begins with the word “for.” Paul’s sufferings are meant to support what goes before, namely, the comfort of the church. Paul says this several ways. For example, verse 6: “If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort.” So Paul’s affliction as a minister of the word is designed not only to throw him solely on God for his comfort, but also to bring that same comfort and salvation to the people he serves. His suffering is for their sake.

How does that work? How do Paul’s sufferings help his people find their comfort and satisfaction in God alone? Paul explains like this. He said,

We have this treasure [the treasure of the gospel of the glory of Christ] in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” (2 Corinthians 4:7–9)

In other words, these terrible things happen to Paul to show that the power of his ministry is not ex hēmōn — “not from ourselves” — but is God’s power (verse 7). Paul’s suffering is designed by God to magnify the “surpassing greatness” of God’s power.

“The aim of the ministry of the preacher is to display Christ.”

He says it again in verse 10: “Always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.” In other words Paul shares in the sufferings of Christ in order to display the life of Jesus more clearly.

The aim of the ministry of the preacher is to display Christ — to show that he is more to be desired than all earthly comforts and pleasures. And the suffering of the preacher is designed to make clear that Christ is in fact that valuable, that precious. I die daily, he says, so that the surpassing value of Christ will be seen in my suffering body. This is how it works. This is how Paul’s sufferings help his people find their comfort and satisfaction in God alone?

Paul says it again in 2 Corinthians 12:9. When he implored the Lord to take away the painful thorn in the flesh, Christ answered: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” And Paul responds, “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” Paul’s thorn in the flesh was to humble Paul and magnify the all-sufficiency of the grace of Christ.

So the way it works is that the suffering of the apostle displays the “surpassing greatness” of the power of God (2 Corinthians 4:7) and the triumph of “life of Jesus” (2 Corinthians 4:10) and the perfection of “the grace of Christ” (2 Corinthians 12:9). And when the people see this in the suffering of the apostle Paul, it causes them to treasure Christ as more precious than life, which produces a radically transformed life to the glory of God.

Paul explains this dynamic in 2 Corinthians 3:18: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another.” Beholding is becoming. When you see him for who he really is in his glory, your heart cherishes him, and thus magnifies him, and you are changed. Everything changes. That is the goal of preaching. And that is the goal of the suffering of the preacher.

Paul puts it in one cryptic sentence in 2 Corinthians 4:12: “Death works in us, but life in you.” Suffering and weakness and calamity and hardship work death in Paul, and in so doing show that the surpassing greatness of his ministry belongs to Christ, not to him. And that manifestation of the surpassing worth of Christ works life in those who see. Because life comes from seeing and savoring Christ as our highest treasure.

So Christ comes to preach and to suffer. And his suffering and death are the heart of his message. Then he appears to Paul and tells him how much he must suffer in the ministry of the gospel — not because Paul’s suffering and death is the content of his message. Christ’s is. But because in his suffering, Christ’s suffering is seen and presented to those for whom he suffered and his glory shines with surpassing value as the greatest treasure of the universe.

Timothy

And now, when Paul undertakes to help Timothy — and us — what does he say? He says, by way of example, in 2 Timothy 2:10, “I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain salvation in Christ Jesus with its eternal glory.” God’s assignment for him as a minister of the word is to suffer for the elect.

Then he turns to Timothy and gives him the same calling — that’s why I think it applies to us. Timothy, making disciples will cost you dearly. 2 Timothy 2:2: “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” Entrust the word to others, Timothy. The price: “Suffer hardship with me.”

And then, very specifically for our purposes here, what about preaching in particular? Paul addresses the issue directly in 2 Timothy 4:2–5:

Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship.

Preach the word, endure hardship! Preach the word, Timothy. The price? Endure hardship.

Hurt and Happy

The point of these messages is that we must preach with a passion to produce people whose satisfaction in God is so solid and so deep and so unshakable that suffering and death will not make our people murmur or curse God, but will help them count it all joy (James 1:2) and say with Paul, “To live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). And how will that happen? I said we could focus on a hundred things. I chose two: First, the preacher must suffer. That is what I have tried to show so far. And now second, the preacher must rejoice. He must be hurt in the ministry, and he must be happy in God.

“Happiness in suffering signals the value of God.”

Of course, Paul commands this of all of us. “Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I will say rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). “We exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations” (Romans 5:2–3). But what is crucial for us, as we ponder preaching and the suffering of the preacher, is to see how Paul, in particular, speaks of his own experience in suffering in the ministry of the word.

He does not just say to the Colossians, “I suffer for your sake.” But he says “I rejoice [chairō] in my sufferings for your sake,” He doesn’t just say to the Corinthians, “I boast about my weaknesses.” He says, “Most gladly [hēdista], therefore, will I boast about my weaknesses” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Yes, there is sorrow. Sometimes almost unbearable sorrow. But even here he says “as sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). And when he writes to the Thessalonians to commend them for their faith, he says, “You . . . became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:6).

Kill Threats with Satisfaction

Why this stress on joy in the Lord, joy in the hope of the glory of God, joy from the Holy Spirit — all in the midst of suffering? I think the essence of the reason is this: The aim of preaching is the glory of God through Jesus Christ. God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. But suffering is a great threat to our satisfaction in God. We are tempted to murmur and complain and blame and even to curse and quit the ministry.

Therefore joy in God in the midst of suffering makes the worth of God — the all-satisfying glory of God — shine more brightly than it would through our joy at any other time. Sunshine happiness signals the value of sunshine. But happiness in suffering signals the value of God. Suffering and hardship joyfully accepted in the path of obedience to Christ show the supremacy of Christ more than all our faithfulness in fair days.

When a preacher preaches with this joy and this suffering, the people will see Christ for the infinite value that he is, and seeing will cherish him above all things and thus be changed from one degree of glory to the next. And the glory of God will be magnified in the church and in the world. And the great aim of preaching will be achieved.