Suffering: The Path and the Price of World Evangelization

First Presbyterian Church Missions Conference | Augusta, Georgia

One of my heroes is Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian pastor, who’s old man now. He founded the ministry called Voice of the Martyrs and he wrote a lot of books, and in one of them he tells the story of a Cistercian monk who was interviewed by an Italian television station, and was asked about the habit of the Cistercians to live a life of total silence and seclusion. And the question was asked, “What if it proves that Christianity isn’t true in the end? How will you and the monks in your order feel about having spent a life in utter silence and seclusion?”

And this is what he said, “Holiness, silence, and sacrifice are beautiful in themselves, even without the promise of reward. I still will have used my life well.” I wonder what you think about that response. Be careful, because the apostle Paul said the exact opposite. He said in 1 Corinthians 15:19, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” Something’s wrong here in this response. Why did Paul not agree with this monk? Why didn’t Paul say, “Even if Christ is not raised from the dead, and there’s no God, and there’s no reward, a life of love and labor and sacrifice is a good life, and I will have spent my life well”? Why didn’t he say, “I don’t have anything to lose in the end, because there’s no heaven and there’s no hell”?

Hope Beyond

The reason this is such a striking contrast to me is because it seems like in America today, many Christians do commend Christ precisely because it will give a life which will have been a good life even if there’s no resurrection from the dead. So was Paul the only one who should say, “If Christ has been raised from the dead, and thus I will not be raised from the dead, and there will be no everlasting recompense for all my life here, then I am to be pitied for the life that I live — not commended for it”? Don’t we talk about the psychological benefits, and the relational benefits, and the love, and the joy, and the reconciliation, and the peace, and the comforts, and the securities, and the fruits of the Holy Spirit, and having a family of believers who will care for you, and the Lord rewarding you with many good things here? It seems like there’s a lot of that talk in commending Christianity to people.

So what’s wrong with Paul? Was he not living the abundant life? Why would he say that if there’s no resurrection, we are of all men most to be pitied? The answer is that for Paul, the Christian life was a life of freely chosen suffering and high-level risk taking almost continually. Oh, he knew joy. He was the apostle of joy. But it was a joy in hope. He said in Romans 5:3–4, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” And if there’s no hope, that tribulation was only to be pitied, not to be praised. That would have been a folly for me to risk that tribulation if there’s no hope. The joy we experience now in tribulation is the joy that streams to us from a hope beyond, so that it’s worth taking the risks and sometimes suffering the suffering.

And if there is no resurrection and there is no hope beyond, then let us avoid risk at all costs, because we have nothing but this life, and the only payoff we will get now is what we get now. And so minimize your risk, maximize your earthly comforts, get as many securities as you can, and sell Jesus. And he won’t be the Jesus of the apostle Paul. There is a better way to maximize your earthly pleasures than Christianity.

Normal, Middle-Class Life

So if you’re in it for the immediate payoff of earthly pleasures, you either are in the wrong thing, or you’re in a distortion. Paul talked about the better way in 1 Corinthians 15:32. He said, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’” Now, when he said, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die,” he didn’t mean, “Let’s all become gluttons and drunks, because Paul knew as well as you do that gluttons and drunks are as pitiable as Christians, with or without a resurrection.”

What he meant when he said, “If there’s no resurrection, let’s eat and drink,” is: Let’s be normal. Let’s have enough food. Let’s have enough to drink. And let’s make sure the refrigerator’s stocked, and that we have we good running water, and that it’s clean and won’t make us diseased, and let’s just be normal and maximize what this world has to give, and lengthen your life out by exercising a good amount and getting the right amount of sleep and eating a right balanced diet. And then you have lived well and you should not be pitied, and if there’s no heaven and no hell, you’ve made a good choice. So he wasn’t commending gluttony and drunkenness. He just said, “Let’s be ordinary, American, middle-class, upstanding, law-abiding, healthy citizens, if there’s no heaven and there’s no hell.

But if there is a heaven to be enjoyed forever and a hell from which to escape and to help others escape, then probably you should choose a life that would be pitied, if those didn’t exist. That’s sort of shocking, isn’t it? It shocks me. That causes me to wake up in the morning and rethink my life. Minimize your risk, minimize your suffering. Maximize your earthly comforts and your securities. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:30–31 that if the dead are not raised, “Why are we in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day!” Paul made choices that were viewed as dying every day. “I make death choices every day. I go on rivers, I go on boats, I go on paths at night, I go into cities, I go into mobs, I go into situations where my life is at risk. I wouldn’t make any of these choices if I didn’t believe in the resurrection. I am a fool if there’s no resurrection. The Christian life is a pitiable life, if there is no resurrection from the dead.”

Rejoice in Suffering for Others’ Sake

So why does Paul do that? Why does he make these choices? Now one of the reasons is the verse that I want to talk to you about tonight. I’m going to take you to Colossians 1:24, and just look at one verse with you tonight and try to make it plain. If you get this verse plain in your life, I think you will have a structure for a strategy of world evangelization that is different from most strategies you’re familiar with. And it’s one that’s right at the center of Paul’s life. It was right at the center of the life of Jesus. Jesus embraced this entirely, and then passed it on to us. So let me read Colossians 1:24.

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.

Let me paraphrase this verse: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings and in my flesh, my hands, my arms, my legs, my tongue, my eyes, my face — in my flesh, where I bear the marks of Jesus, where I die daily. In my flesh, I do my share in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” That’s an amazing verse. “For the sake of the church, for the sake of the ingathering of the bride of Christ from all the peoples — from Spain, and from Asia, and from Syria, and from Greece, and from Rome — for the sake of gathering the church in and building the church up at whatever cost, in my flesh, I suffer in order for the sake of Christ to fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of the Christ hung on the cross. That’s the way the gospel spreads and the church is built: through my sufferings for the church.

Is Something Lacking in Christ’s Work?

Now the main question here is: What in the world does he mean by “filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Jesus”? That’s heresy — almost. Well, let’s make sure we say what it does not mean. And we know that it does not mean this from what he says elsewhere. It does not mean filling up any lack of worth or value or atoning significance in the sufferings of Jesus — as though Jesus did eighty percent of what had to be done to forgive your sins, and Paul now will do the last twenty percent, or maybe you will. That’s not what he means. The sufferings of Jesus are complete. “It is finished” (John 19:30). That colossal, global, universal statement about the work of the cross was true, and the sufferings of Jesus were enough to cover the sins of all the people in all the world who would believe on him. Nothing can be added to them.

Well, what, then, did Paul mean when he said, “In my body, in my sufferings, I complete, or fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Jesus”? Now, let me commend an interpretation to you, show you where I get it, and then draw out its implications for missions. Here’s what I think he means. I think he means that what’s missing in the sufferings of Jesus are not any worth, any value, any atoning sufficiency, but rather, what’s missing in the sufferings of Jesus is a personal presentation of those sufferings to those for whom he died.

Jesus died not only to bear the sin of the world, but to have his sufferings presented to the world as that which would win the world to belief in his sufferings. And what Paul means in saying, “I complete it in that sense, I extend those sufferings as a personal presentation to those for whom he died,” what he means is, “I do that in my suffering. In my suffering, I extend the sufferings of Jesus in my body as his representative to those for whom he died, that they might taste and see his love in me, and have a reflection of the love of Christ in person in my body suffering on his behalf for them.” That’s what I think he means.

In other words, I believe a central strategy for completing the Great Commission is the suffering of missionaries. And no Great Commission will be complete without missionary suffering. Missionaries will suffer until Jesus gets back. And all those who want to extend the afflictions of Jesus to anybody will suffer in some measure, and embody the very love, sacrificial love that Jesus embodied on the cross.

Filling Up Christ’s Afflictions

Now, where do I get that interpretation? Why do I believe that is the case? I get it because of the way the language of completing what is lacking is used in a parallel text in the apostle Paul. So you could do this word study yourself. You could find that unusual word “fill up” — it’s not a very common word in the Greek — and the word for “what is lacking.” That’s also not very common. And you’d enter both of them into your computer and find where they’re both used together, like they are here. There are only a few places.

And the most clear example of the parallel is in Philippians 2. Let me give you the situation. There’s a man named Epaphroditus in the church in Philippi and they had gathered together a love offering for Paul. Now Paul’s in Rome, and they’re in Philippi. I don’t know how far it is — maybe hundreds of miles from northern Greece there over to Rome. And they’re going to send Epaphroditus with this money, and perhaps some clothing, and perhaps some dried goods. They send whatever they can because they love him and they want to support him. They send Epaphroditus with this.

Now Epaphroditus almost dies in the process. He risks his life to get it there. And when he gets there, Paul is deeply moved that Epaphroditus would extend (so you begin to see the analogy), the love offering that was taken. The sacrifices were made in Philippi. But they’re incomplete until they arrive personally presented to those for whom they were given. And Epaphroditus is the mediating agent, the missionary type person here. He’s risking his life. There’s some suffering going on here. Paul talks about it in Philippians 2. So let’s read what Paul says about this ministry that Epaphroditus has in getting the love and sacrifice of the Philippians to Rome and into the hands of the apostle Paul.

He nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete [same Greek expression as in Colossians] what was lacking [same Greek expression as in Colossians] in your service to me. (Philippians 2:30)

That really tipped me off. You’ve got the exact same phraseology. You have a situation of sacrifice and love over here; a needy person, Paul, over here; a mediating agent here, suffering in the flesh in the process. And it is called filling up what is lacking in that gift of love. So I went to the commentaries, because I hadn’t looked at the commentaries yet to see if they saw what I saw, and I’ll read you Marvin Vincent’s paragraph from a hundred years ago. This is what he wrote about this Philippian context.

The gift to Paul was the gift of the church as a body. It was a sacrificial offering of love. What was lacking, and what would have been grateful to Paul and to the church alike, was the church’s presentation of this offering in person. This was impossible, and Paul represents Epaphroditus as supplying this lack by his affectionate and zealous ministry. (Philippians and Philemon: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, 78)

Or he could add, very specifically, by his suffering in his body, in his flesh to complete what is lacking in the love and the ministry of the Philippians, who wanted to touch Paul with their sacrifice like Jesus wants to touch the nations with his sacrifice, but didn’t do it personally. He was located in space, in time, in 30 AD. On a hill on Golgotha, he died. He rose, he went back to heaven, he’s got one physical agent with which to touch the world: you, in your body. And he means to do it through sickness and health, through persecution, as well as measures of success, to fill up what is lacking.

Suffering Is the Strategy

Now how did Paul say he was to fill up what is lacking? How was he to extend the sufferings of Christ to Spain? Or to the villages around Rome where he would have wanted to go? How was he going to do it? He said that he was going to do it through his suffering. “I rejoice in my sufferings.” We’re still in Colossians 1:24: “I rejoice in my sufferings . . . and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking.” It is in his sufferings that he extends the sufferings of Christ to those for whom Christ died, from which I infer this: it is Christ’s design, since he does nothing by accident. He didn’t die on the cross and then say, “Oh, I forgot, I was supposed to reach the nations, and now I’ve died and gone back to heaven.” Nothing takes him off guard like that.

This whole thing is planned out by God the Father and God the Son and the Holy Spirit; they know how they’re going to reach the world. He dies as a man in history, he goes back to heaven, he pours out his Spirit, he called people to himself, and then he appoints human beings called the bride of Christ, his body in the world, and he commissions them to finish his sufferings. This is so radical.

Take Up Your Cross

Did it ever strike you as odd that Jesus would say, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Whoever. Not a few. Not just missionaries. Whoever would be a Christian must take up his cross. The cross is an instrument of torture. It’s horrible. I think Jesus screamed his lungs out for hours. It’s impossible as a human being not to scream when those nerves are pierced with a stake. This is an instrument of torture. “Whoever would come after me, must take up his cross and follow me, for he who would save his life would lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake and the Gospel will find it.

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:24–25)

This is why Paul says in Colossians 1:24, “I rejoice in my sufferings.” This is a strange man, a very strange man. Christians are very strange people. They are miraculous people. Their lifestyles are risk-taking, and yet when they take risks and certain hard things happen to them, they don’t murmur, they don’t grumble; they trust the sovereign wisdom and goodness and mercy of God, though they can’t always understand it. They may not get why these two little kids died on the mission field.

I visited a missionary family in Uganda, and they were so warm and hospitable and loving. They had been there ten years and planted two or three churches. And as we were leaving, my guide, who was also a missionary there, was backing up, and he paused his Land Rover, and he looked out to the mom, and he said, “All clear?” She said, “Yeah.” And I thought that was a really interesting little interchange. Of course, it was clear. There was no one else around. And he backed up and I said, “Was there anything to that?” And he said, “Eighteen months ago they backed over their eighteen-month-old and killed him.” And they never went home. They buried him. How do you survive if you kill your own kid? Yeah, that’s demonic, I agree with that. Satan had a hand in that. But God didn’t lose control. He can’t. You’ve got to throw God away if he can’t say, “Excuse me, there’s a kid behind your car,” if he can’t stop the car. You know he can. You know he can. You’ve got to come to terms with those horrible things. And there are worse things than that. They’re going to happen. They’ve happened to you. They’re going to happen again.

Trust God Through It All

And the world is watching. Will you love Gode through that? Or will you just be like everybody else in the world, and shake your fist in God’s face, and murmur and complain, and put him in the dock, and blame him, and be like everybody else? Or will you show me another way? Will you show me that Jesus came into the world to make you radically different?

So this word joy here is very strange. “Now I rejoice in my suffering for your sake.” And the “for your sake” means I am going to, in Christ’s name, take the sufferings of Christ on my body. I will take up his cross like he called me to do. I will take the risks it takes to get to the hardest peoples of the world. I will reach there. I will pay the price of malaria. I will pay the price of rejection. I will pay the price of prison. I will pay the price of loneliness. I will pay the price of depression. I will pay the price of hard education and distance from my kids. I will pay whatever it takes to be used of God to extend the love of Jesus to the people for whom he died. Because that’s the design of Colossians 1:24 to get it done, and all of history bears it out. No missionary has ever had an easy life. The price is very high, and suffering is no accident. It is God’s strategy for reaching the nations.

Think It Not Strange

Well, let me close with a story. I was at Trinity Seminary in Deerfield, Illinois a few years ago working on Let the Nations Be Glad, and I heard that J. Oswald Sanders, a grand, old missions statesman, who was 89 years old then, and is now with Jesus, was speaking in chapel. I wanted to sneak in and hear him, and I did. He spoke at 89 years of age— oh I hope I can still talk at 89, other than just babble. He said in passing, just an incidental part of the story, that he had written a book a year since he was 70. I thought, what a way to spend your life after 70. Write a book a year. That’s 18 or 19 books between 70 and 89. So all you retired folks, anyone who is 70 years old, write a book. It might be costly, but that’s all right. Pretty much the only people that have anything to say are people who’ve lived 70 years, I think. The rest of us write too early.

Here’s the story he told. I’ll paraphrase it. I’ve got it written out here as best I remembered it when I got home and wrote it down. There was an indigenous missionary that he knew personally in India who was converted and was going to take the gospel, simply as he understood it, from village to village where there was no gospel witness, and tell the story. He trekked all day up a mountain, was very tired, debated whether to wait until the next day after he had been rested. Evening coming on, and he said, “No, I think, even in my weariness, I’ll just go in. Because here’s the end of the day, people are gathering to market, and I will get their attention and just give them a brief overview of the gospel, and ask them to listen me maybe another day.” And so he gets their attention and he tries his best to summarize the good news of Jesus in a brief form to people who’ve never heard the story, and they are scornful of him and basically laugh him out of the city.

And he’s discouraged and tired, decides to lie down under a tree, and he goes to sleep. Dusk comes and it’s almost night, and suddenly he wakes up and he’s surrounded by people looking down on him, and he’s scared to death for his life. The big man of the village is there, and he says, “We came out to see you after we had run you out of town, and we just have seen your blistered feet, and we would have decided that we would like for you to tell us this story again, because if you thought the story valuable enough, and thought us valuable enough to bring it at the cost of blistering your feet like that, we’d like to hear it. You must be a holy man.”

Now I think there’s a little snapshot of Colossians 1:24: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.” And you can imagine that man’s heart leaping at that point. Wouldn’t he be happy at that point? Wouldn’t God give him a gift of joy at that point? “I’m so thankful you didn’t kill me yet, and that you’re willing to hear me. And what’s a few blisters on my feet if I get to tell you the gospel because you’re asking me to hear it.” And that is owing to what he paid in his body by trekking all day up the mountain in bare feet. It’s a little teeny glimpse, just a little glimpse.

And there are things in your life like this. I’m not saying everybody is going to be a martyr for this text to come true. There are all kinds of prices to be paid. There are all kinds of discernments of unbelievers that you are willing to love them at some cost to yourself. But it is a strategy that God has ordained, and as Ray calls you tonight to consider the call of God on this group to cross cultures, to reach unreached peoples, one of the strategies — not the only one, but one of the strategies — that will be involved in all of your lives is suffering.

“Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you,” 1 Peter 4:12 says. It isn’t unusual. It is appointed of God for the loving of the people, for the extension of the sufferings of Jesus to those for whom he died.