Let me read you, just to get us going in this session, what I would call an essential element of discipleship 101 for new believers. In Acts 14, Paul has just recently planted churches in Lystra and Derbe and Iconium, and now he’s going back and he’s going to stabilize them. What will he say? They’ve been Christians a few weeks, maybe a few months at the most. In Acts 14:21–22, it says:
When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.
That’s the only thing he mentions in the discipleship program. Make sure you have it in yours. For your kids, for yourself, and for any person you’re talking to, this is how to help them. He’s encouraging them to continue and stay Christian, and hold on to Jesus. Why? Because there’s going to be trouble. It’s going to be difficult. Christianity is not a pathway out of difficulty; it’s a pathway into difficulty. We don’t preach the prosperity gospel here. We preach the opposite. If you want your life to go well, stay away from Jesus. Of course, it will only go well for a few decades and then there’s eternal misery. But if you want your life to go well for eternity and have more trials here, then turn to Jesus and he will both bring the trials and he will give you the grace to do what needs to be done.
We have, in our sessions this morning, three units that we need to get through. At least, I would love to get through them. I don’t think I’ve ever succeeded in getting through them in the seminars. Maybe one time in the last 15 years I’ve finished a seminar, but I would really like to try it again. What I mean is that all the things that are in your book, I’d like to get through. That means we’ll do a session, a unit that is about an hour or a little less maybe, on the final removal of Satan, then one on God’s general sovereignty over all things, and then one on what the meaning of global suffering is. Those three we’ll try to do in a unit.
Then we’ll try to do the necessity, nature, and purposes of suffering and how you can endure. And then I’d like to spend the whole last hour on how you minister to people. That’s what I almost never get to and that’s why I named the course what I did. It’s probably just as important for you to learn how to deal with your own miseries as it is for you to learn how you help others deal with theirs. That’s the plan. Either after the first or the second session, we will take a 10-minute break. So you will get a chance to stand up and go where you need to go.
Complete Power Over Satan
I think we have a big question leftover after last time: if God is sovereign over Satan in all those 10 ways that we looked at, why in the world doesn’t he remove him altogether? What I think I’m going to do instead of reading this overhead is to just talk to you and put in my words for about three or four minutes and see if I can help you understand it. For those of you who have booklets, you see it there. These texts are simply here to show that God will, in the end, throw Satan into the lake of fire. Therefore, he has the right to do that. Satan has no arm twisting power to say to God, “You can’t do it yet.” He has no power over God. God could do it today if he wanted to. So there must be a reason why he’s going to throw him into the lake of fire later and not earlier. That’s what I’m trying to figure out.
Here’s my basic answer, and it’s just a reflection on all the Scripture relevant to it. I can’t point to one text and say, “See, it says that right there.” Since God wants to magnify his power and his grace and his glory and all of his attributes — and that’s clear from dozens of texts in the Bible — how does that help us answer the question? I think it does. If God today moved into the world with raw power and simply took all the demons and Satan and threw them by force into the lake of fire and let them no more tempt you or bother you at all, clearly his power would be wonderfully magnified. At least I would praise his power very much. We would praise his sovereign power because he commanded and they left. They are gone. God is powerful.
But he doesn’t do that even though he loves to magnify his power. So something else about God must be at stake that would be magnified more if he leaves him to bother us, tempt us, assault us, kill us, persecute us, give us diseases, etc. — all the stuff we saw in the last two sessions. I think the main design is this: what God wants to glorify most in the world is the glory, or the beauty, or the magnificence of his superior worth. Worship means you ascribe to God superior worth, which means he is superior to money, superior to reputation, superior to family, and superior to health and life. Psalm 63:3 says that the steadfast love of the Lord is better than life. How can that be manifest in the world for God’s people to show that God is more precious than all of those things?
God’s Worth Magnified in Satan’s Gradual Defeat
One way is that Satan is allowed to continually take them away and make us sick. He takes away our health and kills somebody. He takes away a loved one and messes up the economy so that you lose your job. There are a hundred things Satan is doing to make life hard, as well as make it easy. He’s got two strategies. Remember that he can use pleasure and he can use pain. And I’m saying that God let Satan run rampant in the world so that we wouldn’t just glorify God for his raw power to get rid of him, but that we would, at every moment where we make a moral choice to prefer God over what Satan just took away from us, frustrate Satan and magnify God. So if he takes your health and you still love God, Satan goes, “Hmph, that didn’t work.” If he takes your job and you still love God, Satan goes, “Hmph, that didn’t work.”
At each of those points, you are defeating Satan and magnifying the worth of God. This is my answer: evidently, God regards that battle and the thousands of little choices that Christians make on the basis of the superior worth of God over what Satan just wrecked as a greater glory to him than if he just dispensed with Satan immediately. That’s my answer. If it’s not an adequate answer, I don’t have another one and you can help me. Maybe send me a note that offers a better one.
What Christians who have come to trust Jesus and his word do is that we just take what we’re dealt and we try to figure it out. We don’t dictate what we’re dealt. We just take it. And we’re dealt Satan. He’s here. The Bible says he’s real and he’s doing all these things. We are dealt the word that he could be taken out and he will be taken out, and yet he isn’t being taken out now. So there must be something about God that will be magnified by leaving him here. It isn’t mainly God’s power. It’s mainly God’s superior worth that is being magnified. God puts more stock for now in magnifying that part of his worth — his superior beauty over what you lose when Satan batters you. He puts that as a higher premium over just the display of his raw power.
All Things Are His Servants
I said to one of you last night that we would take a few minutes and simply talk about God’s general sovereignty over all things. These are those few minutes. This is in the booklet from pages 23 to 25. Ephesians 1:11 says:
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will . . .
He works all things according to the counsel of his will.
Isaiah 46:9–10 says:
Remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, “My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose . . .”
So God, in some sense, is willing everything.
Lamentations 3:37–38 says:
Who has spoken and it came to pass,
unless the Lord has commanded it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that good and bad come?
Amos 3:6 says:
Is a trumpet blown in a city,
and the people are not afraid?
Does disaster come to a city,
unless the Lord has done it?
He expects the answer to be no.
Meant for Evil, Meant for Good
Genesis 50:20 says:
As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.
And the key there are these two words — you meant and God meant. It doesn’t say God used it for good. There’s nothing false about that. But this says a different thing, and it’s a more radical and more controversial thing. A lot of people say, “Satan messes up the world, and God fixes it.” That sounds like God is always a few steps behind, just using stuff, using suffering. That’s not the picture here.
The picture here is that there are two intentions in this act. The evil is what you meant when you sold Joseph into slavery. You meant evil. And when you sold Joseph into slavery, God also meant something by it. He didn’t just use it. He meant something by it. He had a different design in it.
God is in this thing, designing it differently than Satan is designing it or the brothers are designing it. I think the story of Joseph in the Old Testament is one of the most important practical pastoral stories in the world. To be familiar with those few chapters in Genesis is to have a way of looking at the world that is unbelievably important for your life.
If I do my math right, I think it was about 13 years between the time that he was sold into slavery and when he was finally invested into his office. Now, those 13 years of his life, if you were to graph it, would look like they were repeatedly going down. He thought things were going to go well with Potiphar’s house and they went badly. He thought things were going to go well in the prison and he got forgotten two more years. It just goes down, down, down. And when he’s at his forgotten worst, the solution to the last 13 years is given to him. God is showing him, “I meant it to save your family. That’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been saving the family. I’ve been saving the Messiah. I’ve been doing things you never dreamed.” And some of you are six years into that, or maybe 10 years into that.
The Line Graph of Our Lives
There’s no limit to 13 years, but for me anyway, to have that paradigm has been very good. I’ve been at this church long enough to know how to graph things now. I don’t get depressed nearly as easily as I did when I was 40 because I’ve seen us go through some really lean seasons as a church. God helped us weather them. We came out. There was no growth for four years from 1993 to 1997. We didn’t grow. We just agonized over stuff you don’t need to know about. And then God came and he said, “Okay, I’m done disciplining you. I’m done and we’re going to go some places.” I would look at the finances say, “Okay, if they don’t come in at the end of this year, or if they don’t come in for the next three years, they’ll come in again someday.” Life is like that. You need to graph your life. Suppose you graph it so that you’re at the bottom and then you die. Glory forever.
There’s no guarantee that everybody’s story turns out like Job’s or Joseph’s. John the Baptist’s story sure didn’t. He was faithful and he got criticism. He was faithful and he got prison. He was faithful and he got his head chopped off. End of life. End of story. Jesus said he was the greatest man born of a woman. And everyone in the kingdom is greater than he (Matthew 11:11). It’s important to see that this text in Genesis 50:20, which is the climax of the story of Joseph, is to teach us a way to look at life.
Every Decision Is from the Lord
Proverbs 16:9 says:
The heart of man plans his way,
but the Lord establishes his steps.
A man’s steps are from the Lord;
how then can man understand his way? (Proverbs 20:24).
I know, O Lord, that the way of man is not in himself,
that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps (Jeremiah 10:23).
Proverbs 16:33 is probably the most radical of all. Think about Reno, Las Vegas. Let’s say the lot is like dice and whatever that table is where they throw them. I’m not a gambler. It says:
The lot is cast into the lap,
but its every decision is from the Lord (Proverbs 16:33).
A brother asked me last night, “So you’re saying this is all from the Lord? This is all planned. This is all ordained?” I said, “Yep, that’s what I believe. I believe every little gesture I make up here is designed from eternity.” I’m sure not controlling it. I don’t think anything is meaningless. Even though some things look meaningless your whole life long.
John the Baptist’s death looks meaningless to me. A girl dances in a party, and her mom whispers and asks for the head of John the Baptist, and John’s head gets chopped off because of the whim of a dancing girl and a wimpy king. You just say, “No, no. You can’t end the best life like that. That’s absurd. That’s meaningless. He didn’t go anywhere.” You will experience things that look absolutely meaningless. But if this is true, that every lot being cast and every roll of the dice is from the Lord, then it’s not meaningless.
You’ve heard me say this before if you’ve been around for a while. My wife and I, our default game together is Scrabble. You know how Scrabble works. You put your hand in the bag and you pull out seven letters, or three, or two, or whatever. And what you pull out makes all the difference. If you get a Q without a U, you’re cooked, especially when it’s the last turn. So do you pray when you put your hand in the bag? How can you not pray? God controls what you pull out.
Well, here’s the problem. Is it good for your family that you win? Maybe not. So what do you pray? Give me bad letters? Or do you not pray? How can you not pray? I’m going to pray without ceasing. I’m putting my hand in the bag. He decides what I pull out. How can I not pray? So do you know my prayer is? I say, “For the kingdom and for the family. You decide. If I need to lose, let me lose. If she needs some encouragement today, let her win.” She wins most of the time. My wife is brilliant with words. That’s a little, teeny application of this text. There are more important ones.
Many are the plans in the mind of a man,
but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand (Proverbs 19:21).
He Does Not Afflict from His Heart
Let’s go to this passage in Lamentations 3:32–33:
Though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not afflict from his heart
or grieve the children of men.
I remember the first time I read that I thought, “Wow. He’s causing grief and he will mingle that hard, severe mercy (as Sheldon Vanauken called it) with compassion.” Probably no book made me cry more than the book he wrote called A Severe Mercy.
He’ll mingle that grief that he’s causing with compassion. He’s very kind and loving. This doesn’t feel like it, but he is. We need to know that from the Bible. And then he gives this explanatory word, which is so baffling, “because he doesn’t afflict willingly.” That is, he’s not doing this, this causing grief, willingly. That sounds like, “Whoa, God is being forced, as if he doesn’t want to do this but somebody is making him do it?” What does willingly mean?
So I got my Hebrew out. Those of you who’ve had some Hebrew can see this. It’s not a hard word. This is actually three words, believe it or not. This wors includes mi (from), lib’ (heart), and ō (his). Everybody can see that who’s had Hebrew for 10 weeks. The words is milib’ō. It’s simple and straightforward. It literally means from his heart. So now you know as much about it as Hebrew scholars do.
Now, what does it mean? It says that he doesn’t afflict us from his heart. He does afflict us. He ordains that grievous things come into our lives, but he doesn’t afflict us from his heart. I think it means something like this: God has levels of willing, levels of exuberance in his heart and his mind and his soul. We’re over our heads here. I know God is infinitely complex. And to make statements like this are to Babel like a baby, but that’s what we’re stuck with, language.
I think many other places in the Bible indicate that God does things, that he wills things in one sense, that he doesn’t will in another sense. He says, for example, “Thou shalt not commit murder” (Exodus 20:13). And then he ordains the murder of his Son. That’s what I mean. That sort of thing turns up all over the Bible. Here, God causes grief, but he doesn’t do it from his heart. So these are levels of willing. The pain that Jesus was caused in his death was not, in and of itself, a delight to God. What God was willing there is justice and mercy and all the good things that were coming to you through the cross.
There are reasons for why he does this. At the moment of your pain, God is not thinking, “I love to see people hurt.” That is the way a lot of people would construe what I’m teaching you in this seminar. They would say, “That’s the only way you can conceive of a God who ordains pain. He must be really wicked. He just loves to see people hurt.” And this is saying, “No, that’s not the way it is with God any more than it is with a parent who spanks a child and sends him to his room for a season of misery for his good.” A good parent knows how to balance these things. He doesn’t harm his children. He doesn’t slap them around and treat them in anger. But he knows this little padded spot right here is designed for spankings.
A child is relieved when he is brought to tears for a crime rather than doing some kind of horrible psychological manipulation to make the child miserable for days. I’m getting into my little parent spiel here. We don’t love to see our children cry. No parent loves to see his children cry, but we bring them to tears intentionally. So it’s just an analogy of this. From our heart we’re not causing pain. We’re doing something for their good. And we’ll see in the units to come what that is. That’s the end of the section on the total complete sovereignty of God choosing a dozen texts or so to broaden out the big picture of God’s sovereignty, and not just over Satan.
The Purpose in Global Suffering
Now, what is the meaning of global suffering? Can we even say it? Is that a presumptuous question to ask? Does it have meaning or is it just absurd? Well, I think the Bible does give us a couple of really significant answers to this question. Let’s look at them.
Judgment on Sin
The first answer I want to suggest is this: it is in part God’s judgment on the world for its sinfulness. As such, it is a vivid portrayal in the physical world of the moral and spiritual horror of God-belittling sin. That’s my first big answer. The meaning of pain in the physical realm is the horror of sin in the moral realm. That’s the meaning of it. Physical misery is a parable of moral viciousness.
Now, let me say quickly what I’m not saying. I am not saying that every given individual that deals with a misery has a corresponding moral viciousness in their life. That is absolutely not what I’m saying. Jesus had no moral viciousness in his life and he suffered more than anybody. Regarding Job, his three comforting friends tried to say to him, “The reason you’re suffering so long and so deeply is because you must have sinned so grievously.” God got very mad at them for saying that. So I’m not saying that every misery has a specific, in-your-life, counterpoint of sin and viciousness. What I’m saying is that in the big scope of why there is this horror in the world, it corresponds to the horror of sin in the world. So let’s look and see where I’m getting that.
The Effect of Sin
The first way to think about it is that Romans one pictures certain miseries as the effect of sin and people being handed over to their sin. It says:
The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth (Romans 1:24).
So God’s wrath is coming against the unrighteousness and ungodliness of those who suppressed the truth. And it continues:
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves (Romans 1:24) . . . For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature . . . (Romans 1:26).
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done (Romans 1:28).
And from that come untold miseries. God gave people over. AIDS started in sin. We have to be so careful here, don’t we? Because it’s no longer true to simply say, “You got AIDS because you’ve been fooling around homosexually.” That’s clearly not the case anymore. But this word right here says something about it: “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves (he’s talking about homosexuality) . . . receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error” (Romans 1:24–27). It’s a pretty amazing parallel to AIDS.
Now, the story is told over and over again in history that one person’s misery, or one family’s misery, or one society’s misery becomes everybody’s misery.
Searching for Cures
So last night, instead of only saying that I hope some of you give your life to eliminating malaria, I will also say that I hope some of you give your life to eliminating AIDS. I would be very happy if a vaccine were found that would just wipe it out. Even though it might free up some people to do more illegitimate, God-displeasing sex. I just don’t think we should think in terms of the other way around. We shouldn’t think, “Let the evil go and kill millions of babies and people and innocent wives whose husbands are sleeping around on them.” No, we would love to see that turned around. My point is, here, what’s the meaning of all that? And one of the meanings is that God gave them over.
Some people say that if we continue on in abortion, or if we continue on with homosexual practice — people pretending like they’re married — God’s going to judge us. No, he’s not. That is the judgment. It says, “God gave them over in the lust of their hearts to impurity” (Romans 1:24). That is the outpouring of God’s wrath. The wrath of God is being revealed in the giving people over to do abortions and to do all manner of evil.
The Meaning of Death
Here’s a second way to look at it: death. Death is the great enemy. The last enemy to be overcome is death (1 Corinthians 15:26). And Paul says in Romans 5:12: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin . . .” So what’s the meaning of death? The meaning of death is sin. Death is a physical statement of the horrors of sin. If you look at death and see it and you hate it, that’s good. But make sure your hate terminates on the right thing. You have to look through to its cause. Its cause is sin. The meaning of the fact that everybody dies is that sin entered into the world.
So if you get angry at death, and think, “Why is there so much death? Why do babies die, and 15 year olds die, and 45 year olds die, and 65 year olds die? Why is there so much death?” Your anger should be channeled here to this statement. Through one man sin entered the world and death through sin, so death spread to all men because all sinned (Romans 5:12). By the transgression of the one, many died. By the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one (Romans 5:14). Paul continues:
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men . . . For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous (Romans 5:18–19).
He’s paralleling Adam and Christ in condemnation and justification. And just as in Adam all die, so in Christ, everyone who’s in Christ will be made alive because of hif righteousness, just like these people all died because of Adam’s wickedness. That’s the doctrine of original sin. But the general point here is this: what’s the meaning of the carnage of death in the world?
I had a teacher one time who said, “History is a conveyor belt of corpses.” And it is. Everybody dies. If you want a sobering experience every day, when you read the paper, turn to the obituary page, especially on the weekends. On the weekend, the obituaries go for three pages sometimes. And then look at their pictures. They’re young and they’re old; they’re women and men; they’re children and adults; they’re every race. Everybody is dying. And you just realize, if your life is comfortable for a moment, there’s about 80 people in these three pages who right now have a network of people who are in absolute grief, and it’s every single day. And this is just one city. What is the meaning of that? The meaning is that sin is outrageous.
Death Spread to All Men
I’m talking about physical death right now. Sin and spiritual death are almost synonymous. The question was, “Am I talking here about physical death or spiritual death?” I’m talking about physical death here because that’s what Paul is talking about here. Why do people die physically? People die physically because sin came into the world. Let me read it again:
Just as sin came into the world through one man (that’s Adam), and death through sin . . . (Romans 5:12).
That statement right there is just hugely worldview shaping because that means you will now not see death as absurd and without any meaning or root. It has a root. It has a meaning. What should it say to us? It should say to us, “If you don’t like it, don’t like sin.” It’s so sad that people don’t get the message here. People, in fact, turn it right on its head. They say, “Tomorrow we die, so let’s eat, drink, and be merry.” They multiply sins because they see death. The Bible wants to say, “No, let death direct you towards holiness because sin brought death.”
Producing an Eternal Weight of Glory
There’s one more way to look at it. This is perhaps the most important. Romans 8:18–23, I think, is probably the most important passage in the Bible for coming to terms with disease and disability in a church. When I came to Bethlehem 28 years ago, I can’t remember the exact timing, but within the first say two months, I think, I preached a sermon called Christ and Cancer.
Now, why would a young, 34-year-old pastor put that at the front of his agenda to say to the several hundred folks who were there what he believed about Christ and cancer? And the reason was very simple: 90 percent of the people in our church were old. I came to a church that was dying and that was filled with old people, very gracious old people. They were wonderful to us. And this church exists and survives and thrives because of how sweet and helpful they were. So I wanted to honor them. I did a funeral every three weeks for a year and a half. You talk about baptism by fire.
I’d never done a funeral in my life when I came to this church and I started doing them all the time — every three weeks for 18 months. It bonded me to these old people unbelievably because they all came to the funerals. They showed up at every funeral because they knew theirs would be next. So why did I preach about Christ and Cancer? Because as I looked out on them and I wanted them to know what I would think when I came to the hospital bed. I didn’t want them to think that the pastor’s going to say, “You wouldn’t be here if you were a real believer. You could get healed if you really believed.”
That could make them think, “He’s going to think my faith is weak because I’m in the hospital.” I just wanted to kill that thing. I wanted to kill that thing so that they could want me to come and expect that I would say something more biblical and more faith-building than, “Oh, you’re sick. You must not be trusting Jesus because if you had faith you could move mountains, like this cancer.”
Present Suffering and Future Glory
This text right here is the key text on that issue, so let’s read it carefully. This gives an interpretation to the meaning of Christian suffering:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Romans 8:18).
The first thing he does is just make sure that we get our proportions right. We may suffer in this present time — that is, we will suffer our whole life, a lot or a little. And if it’s a lot, it’s not worthy to be compared to what’s coming. We need a good, healthy dose in America of heavenly-mindedness. Heavenly-mindedness in its biblical function and proportion doesn’t make you an irrelevant, pie-in-the-sky recluse. It makes you a radical risk-taker who can lay down your life and know it’s worth it. At least it should. He continues:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God (Romans 8:19).
He pictures creation as having this longing for the revelation of the sons of God. Well, what does that mean — “revelation of the sons of God”? It means this. As I look out on you right now — and I’m assuming most of you are Christians, believers, born again — you don’t look like sons of God. You look like ordinary mortals. You’re going to die someday. A son of God might be about a thousand feet tall with long, flowing robes and a face shining like the sun and arms that can throw Pluto. Come on, a son of God is magnificent. And you don’t look magnificent at all. You look like everybody else. We haven’t been revealed. We’re walking down Nicollet Mall and we look like everybody else. Nobody knows you’re a child of God when you just walk by them on the street. They will someday.
It says in Matthew 13:44 in the little parable, “You will shine like the sun in the kingdom of your Father.” You can’t look at the sun without going blind. Do you know what C.S. Lewis said? He said that you’ve never met an ordinary mortal. Someday very soon, that person will either be a devil that you’ll shrink back from, or a child of God that you will want bow down and worship. You’ve never met an ordinary human being. There aren’t any. We just haven’t been revealed yet as to what we are.
So the whole creation is waiting, but when’s it going to happen? Oh, bring it, bring it, bring it. Now, here’s the reason it hasn’t. Here’s the situation we’re in:
For the creation was subjected to futility . . . (Romans 8:20).
Subjected to Futility
Now that is like the statement “through sin came death” (Romans 5:12). Creation was subjected to futility. Whoa, who did that? What is that? That means you look out across the entire globe, and everywhere the most successful and most beautiful things are shot through with futility.
Picture your favorite hotel, or picture your favorite car, or your favorite whatever. Give it enough time and it’s going to break. It’s going to rust. It’s going to get roaches in it. It’s going to run off a cliff. Things break, things rust, and things get old. We get old. I’m the biggest model of futility right here. I’m 62 years old, losing my hair, and I need glasses. My wife tells me I need a hearing aid. I don’t think I need a hearing aid. I think, “Why can’t you talk louder? You don’t talk loud enough” — and on and on. This body is wasting away.
What’s all that? That’s futility. Missionaries know this more than anybody. Everything breaks. Nothing works. It’s the futility, and it’s intentional. Somebody did this, who did it? Well, it says, “The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly” (Romans 8:20). Creation didn’t say, “Make me futile.” It was “because of Him” (Romans 8:20). It has a capital H, and I think that’s right. But that’s not in the original. It just says, “Because of him who subjected it.” And how do we know that’s God? It’s due to the fact that the passage says “in hope” (Romans 8:20).
Satan is the only other candidate. And he didn’t do it in hope. You might say Adam is a candidate, but he didn’t do it in hope either. Only one person subjected this creation to futility in hope — the hope that the creation itself would be set free from its slavery to corruption. Who can do that? God can do that. He’s going to do that. The creation will be set free from its slavery and bondage to corruption. That’s another way of saying futility, and it will be brought into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. Finally, we’re going to be revealed. Our glory will be revealed.
First John 3:1–2 says:
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God . . . What we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.
The day is coming when these ordinary Christians who are little children of God are going to stand face-to-face with Jesus. And that is going to result in immediate transformation into the likeness of Jesus. Just like he has a resurrection body, we’ll have resurrection bodies and we will glow with his glory. That’s coming.
Groaning with Creation
Until then, we have this futility and slavery to corruption. And it gets even more pointed for us Christians. Paul says, “For we know that the whole creation groans” (Romans 8:22). So you have futility, slavery to corruption, and now the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of child birth. Now that’s an analogy to what? It’s an analogy to the fact that when you look around the world and you see tsunamis and earthquakes and pandemics, you should say, “Birth pains.”
What does that mean? It means a baby’s about to be born. What baby? The new heavens and the new earth with Christians shining like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. The meaning of this futility, the meaning of these upheavals, the meaning of this groaning is that Paul sees them like somebody subjected it to this in hope of a baby being born — namely, the new heavens and the new earth. Paul continues:
And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit . . . (Romans 8:23).
That’s referring to Christians, not who have little faith, but who are Spirit-filled. He says, “We ourselves who have the Holy Spirit.” Notice how he’s emphasizing this because they just couldn’t believe it. Some of the Christians were saying, “If you’re a Christian, you get well. If you’re a Christian, you don’t get sick.” Paul is having to say that we also, we ourselves, who have the spirit groan within ourselves waiting for adoption as sons, the redemption of our body (Romans 8:23).
That’s really important because it teaches us that Christians who have the Holy Spirit — which means they are God’s children, pleasing to the Father in Jesus Christ — are swept into the miseries, swept into the futility, and swept into the groaning. You will die just like everybody else. You will get cancer just like everybody else. You will struggle in your marriages just like everybody else. You will experience the aging process just like everybody else. Christians are not separated, according to Romans 8:23. Just get it.
And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly . . . (Romans 8:23).
This is not a praise-God-anyhow, I’m-always-above-the-fray kind of attitude. We groan within ourselves, waiting for our what? This is the completion of our adoption. We’re already adopted legally, but we don’t come into the full possession of our inheritance yet. This is the redemption of our bodies. It says in Philippians 3:20–21 that someday Jesus will transform this lowly body into a body like his glorious body. And the translation from Greek is “body of lowliness” (sōma tēs tapeinōseōs).
The reason I’m just saying that is because of how moved I was in reading the biography of Julius Schniewind, a New Testament scholar in Germany. It was about 30 years ago when I read it. He died of pneumonia after a long, cold, German, unheated train ride during the second world war. And as he came home and he opened the door and walked in, he knew he was very sick. He said to his wife, “metaschēmatisei tō sōma tēs tapeinōseōs hēmōn (meaning, ‘he will transform our body of lowliness’).” He was saying, “I’m going to lay this down. This lowly body is going to get an exchange for another body.” That’s what Paul is talking about right here. He’s talking about the redemption of our bodies. We have good news for disabled people, really good news. And we have good news for diseased people and good news for dying people.
This may sound strange. If I had my choice at Bethlehem to do a funeral or a wedding, I would do a funeral in a minute, way more. Why? Well, there is so much natural joy sustaining the people at a wedding that they don’t need me. They just legally need me. But at a funeral, they need me really badly because I have news and it’s so good. At the wedding, they’re going to have sex that night. What else do they need? They have been waiting for this, I hope, forever. And everyone is dressed up. To preach the gospel at a wedding is a huge challenge. To say the steadfast love of the Lord is better than life (Psalm 63:3) and really mean it is hard. Someone could think, “Really? This is pretty good right now.” That’s the problem. But at a funeral everybody’s needy, and we have really good news.
Sorrow Mingled with Mercy
All of that groaning is mingled with many mercies. You’ve got texts on that. I’m not going to read them. Here’s my conclusion from that first answer to the question about the meaning of global suffering: a world of horrendous suffering should not cause us to think of God as a horrendous God, but to think of the magnitude and depth of the ugliness and heinousness of God-belittling pride and unbelief and indifference and scorn. This is what hell will mean for all eternity. It is a witness to the heinousness of God-demeaning pride. In other words, every time you see cancer, every time you see some horrible malformation, every time you see some terrible, grotesque face, or when you see a baby born with one head here and one head here, you should think that. I keep pictures like that in my computer. You would think I’m sick, because when I see things turn up on the internet of horrendous things, I keep them.
I’ve got a picture of a baby and here’s her face. Then she has another head here with another face upside down and a little body. She was a few months old, and her mommy was stroking one of her faces. I just want to die. I just want to scream. I’m saying that so that you don’t ever as a Christian think you should put your head in sand with regard to the suffering of this world. Stay awake. You have a way to see it now. You should see that and say, “I hate sin. I hate my pride more than I hate anything.” That’s the way you should respond to that. You should think, “I hate my selfishness towards my family. I hate the shortness of my temper. I hate my impatience.” That’s what you should feel when you see a disfigured face. Don’t you get in God’s face about this. There is another way to understand it.
A Call to Repentance
I’ll say this, and then we’ll stop and take a little break. Global suffering is God’s message, a warning and awakening that the world should take seriously their desperate moral condition in repent. When you get a phone call from the news agency after a calamity and they want to know what you as a born again evangelical Christian think the meaning of it is, this would be the first text you should go to probably. You should say, “Can I just tell you a little story about Jesus?”
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices (Luke 13:1).
Pilate came into the temple and he saw some people offering some sacrifices and he slaughtered the people and mingled their blood with their sacrifices. And they came to Jesus and said, “What does that mean?” And then it says:
And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish (Luke 13:2–3).
That means the death, the horror, the calamity, and that gross horrific event was to get you to repent. That’s why I said that when you look at a horror in the world, your main thoughts should be about your own sin. He continues:
Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them (or the Twin Towers in New York): do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish (Luke 13:4–5).
So I think we should say to the news reporter on the other end of the telephone, “Sir, or ma’am, whatever else I say to you about the meaning of yesterday’s calamity, its meaning for you, my friend, is that you repent and turn to Christ. That’s the meaning. Don’t play games. Don’t play little soundbite games.” If they want to keep talking after that, keep talking, but get to it. Be Jesus-like. Jesus didn’t get into a theory, did he? They came in and said, “Give us a theory of evil about the tower falling on 18 people,” as they were just walking by. And Jesus said, “It wasn’t because they were worse sinners. It was to make plain the fact that you should repent because you all deserve to be under the tower.”
One of the most moving sermons I ever heard was by R.C. Sproul and it was entitled The Locus of Astonishment. It’s a typical R.C. Sproul title. And he took this text, Luke 13:1–5, and he said, “These people were amazed that anybody had a tower follow on them when they were walking by. And Jesus said, ‘No, no, no. That’s a misplaced locus of amazement. You should be amazed you weren’t under the tower. If you don’t repent, you will be under the tower someday.’” It is what that text says. And that is the way we respond. We look at events and we say, “Why did this happen?” And we should say, “Why didn’t this happen to me?”