My plan was to start with the big picture last night about why there is such a world as this with so much terrorism and so much pain and misery. The suffering of the world was last night. Then tonight, I want to focus on the sufferings of Christ, and then tomorrow night I want to focus on the sufferings of Paul and missionaries and ministers. Then, on the last time that I have with you, I want to focus on your suffering, and especifically the kind of sustaining grace that God gives you for your life. That’s the plan for my evening sessions.
The Greatness of Christ’s Sufferings
I said this was the fourth answer to the question posed last night. We can just launch in with you assuming that, and my aim is to magnify the greatness of Christ’s sufferings. I want to magnify Jesus in his suffering, and the process that I would like to venture into here to give the ultimate biblical explanation is to first outline it in general terms, and then we’ll go to the Bible to find it.
My aim, very practically, is that God would free us from the paralyzing effects of discouragement, self-pity, fear, and pride, and that we would be free to spend ourselves and give ourselves in Nigeria or wherever in order to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things, including suffering, for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. The first five minutes now are going to sound very theoretical, philosophical, and theological without root in the Bible, but hang on, don’t leave me. This is the conclusion I’m giving you, and then we’re going to go underneath it and put a lot of Bible there before we’re done.
A Great Display of Great Grace
I believe that the universe exists — and that includes you and your family and your sufferings — to display the greatness of the glory of the grace of God. God resolved to create the world to display the greatness of the glory of the grace of God.
Now, I might have said it slightly differently. I might have said the universe exists — you exist and the world exists as it is — to display the greatness of the glory of God. That would’ve been a true statement, but the Bible is more specific. It does bring in the word grace, and we’ll look at that text in a moment.
What I’m saying is that all this world that I talked about last night in all of its pain exists for this purpose. God decreed from all eternity to display the greatness of the glory of his grace for the enjoyment of his creatures, and he revealed that most fully in the sufferings of his Son, Jesus Christ. That’s my thesis tonight.
The sufferings of Jesus are the aim, the goal towards which God is moving in the creation of this world in the display of the glory of his grace. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who least deserved to suffer, bore the most suffering in order that we who deserve the most suffering may escape our suffering. That’s what happened at Calvary, and I believe that was the pinnacle of the revelation of the greatness of the glory of the grace of God, and therefore, all of creation is leading to that. The reason there is a world of suffering is so that Christ could suffer and display the grace of God in his suffering. That’s the conclusion. That’s where we’re going in tonight’s message. The ultimate reason that suffering exists in the universe is so that Christ might display the greatness of the glory of the grace of God in suffering to overcome our suffering. None of that could have happened had there not been suffering in the world.
Good Friday is the point of the universe because it was the pinnacle of the display of the greatness of the glory of grace, and that’s why he created the universe. Everything is leading to it. Everything is explained by it. What happened on Good Friday was the pinnacle of the revelation of the display of the greatness of the glory of God’s grace.
Biblical Basis for the Centrality of Christ’s Suffering
Now we need the Bible. We need the Bible underneath these kinds of statements. Let’s begin. You don’t need to look all of these up but you can go there with me if you want. I’ll be moving over numerous texts. I’m going to start with Revelation 13:8. It goes like this:
All who dwell on earth will worship [the beast], everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.
That last statement is a very careful, literal, accurate translation. Everybody, at some point in the future when this antichrist figure appears, is going to worship him except those whose names are in the book of life of the Lamb that was slain. That book, it says, was written before the foundation of the world. Before you were created or anybody was created, before creation happened, there is a book. It’s called the book of life. In it are names of people who will not worship the beast. That is, God will exercise his preserving grace for them and prevent them from falling prey to that idolatry.
That book, amazingly, is called the book of life of the lamb who was slain, which means that before there was any creation, in God’s mind, a lamb was to be slain. That slaying of that Lamb would procure for those in the book perseverance so that none of them would worship the beast. The only point I want to make here is the slaying of the Lamb of God was in the mind of God before he made the universe.
Now, I want to read again a text I read last night. In 2 Timothy 1:9, Paul looks back into eternity, before the ages began, and he says this:
[God] saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began . . .
Now the point is the same here. Before the ages began and before there was any creation, in Christ Jesus, the one who purchased grace for us, we received grace in him before we were made. Now you have Revelation 13:8 where there’s a book where names are written because a lamb in God’s mind is going to be slain and secure the salvation of those in the book. Then in 2 Timothy 1:9, you have God saying there is grace in Christ Jesus for people, and grace is undeserved favor we have because we have sinned. God has in his mind that there’s going to be sin, and there’s going to be a slaying of the Lamb, and there’s going to be salvation and preservation, and it’s all planned before Adam and Eve ever are created or ever fall.
To the Praise of His Glorious Grace
Now, that’s crucial because it means that this slaughtered Lamb is not plan B. God did not wait until they fell and said, “Oh, my! My creation has been ruined. What can I do? I have a new plan: I’ll save them by sending my Son.” That’s absolutely not what the Bible teaches. We have at least two verses now, and there are others, that make plain that in God’s mind, before Adam and Eve fell, you have a book of the Lamb slain in which names are written and you have grace coming to us before Adam and Eve ever fell.
Now, I believe that all of that happened because God aimed to display grace. Let me go to the verse that’s key there. This is Ephesians 1:4-6, and it goes like this:
[God] chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace . . .
Now, the key thing to see at this point is that there are two phrases in those verses: 1) he chose us in him, and 2) he adopted us through Jesus Christ. That means that the work that God planned to do before the foundation of the world unto the praise of the glory of his grace was a work produced, or procured, or obtained, by Jesus Christ, and he did it by being slaughtered on the cross. You know that word slain in Revelation 13:8 is not a nice word. Only John, of all the New Testament writers, uses that word in Greek. It’s what you do to a lamb. You slit its throat, you pour the blood out, you kill it, you slaughter it. That’s the word used there. Before the foundation of the world, there is a book of the slaughtered Lamb.
Why would you choose such a word? Can’t we say “take his life” or something gentle? No, we can’t because it was not pretty. If you saw Mel Gibson’s movie you got a little small foretaste. It was not to be made light of. It was not to be put on little gold and silver crosses to be worn around pagan people’s necks as some kind of jewelry for rock stars. That’s not the way it was. Nobody hangs electric chairs around their neck, and the electric chair is really gentle. Crosses are designed for torture and that was God’s design for his Son unto the praise of the glory of his grace.
That’s from Ephesians 1:6, and from my mind in 1977 when I taught through Ephesians, it was an absolutely glorious discovery in Ephesians 1:6, Ephesians 1:12, and Ephesians 1:14, that the whole purpose from before the foundation of the world, of everything that happens in redemption, is so that you and I might praise the glory of the grace of God. That was so transforming for me in 1977 as I taught Ephesians at Bethel College.
Worthy Is the Slaughtered Lamb
Now, here’s another verse just to show you that it wasn’t just from eternity past that this was heavy on God’s mind and heart, but to eternity future the slain Lamb will be the focus of our worship. Sometimes people ask, “Will we be able to forget the pains of this life?” Not this one. Revelation 5:9 goes like this. This is a picture of what’s happening in heaven:
And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain (slaughtered), and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation . . .
And then Revelation 5:11 says:
Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice,
“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain (slaughtered),
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”
That’s from Revelation 5, and over in Revelation 15 they’re still singing this song to the slaughtered Lamb. Is it not amazing that forever and ever and ever and ever, we will sing about slaughter? I’m blown away by that. I am simply blown away by the fact that the hymns of heaven will be about slaughter.
Now, either God had a bad idea about how we should spend eternity with infinite happiness, or the world needed suffering so that Christ could be slaughtered. It was planned before the foundation of the world that he be slaughtered. We’re going to sing forever and ever that he was slaughtered. Therefore, the conditions for the slaughter needed to be provided, which of course leads us to what we saw last night, namely that God ordained the fall of Adam and Eve into sin.
Meant for Evil, Meant for Good
Now, for this to work without blasphemy in your mouth or mind, to say that the goal of the universe is Good Friday and we’ll be singing of Good Friday forever — and therefore the conditions needed to put Good Friday in place had to happen, and therefore, God ordained everything that leads to Good Friday — you have to have a category of thought in your mind that goes like this: it is not evil in God to will that there be evil. Let me say it again. It is not sin in God to will that there be sin in the world. If you cannot fit that into your head, I don’t think you can embrace the big pictures of the Bible.
We must let the Bible shape what’s possible in our thinking. If you say, “That’s nonsense,” or, “That’s schizophrenia,” or, “That’s double talk,” I just don’t think you can make sense of the Bible. Oh, I hope I don’t bring to the Bible philosophical presuppositions about what God can and can’t do. I want to expose myself to the Bible, let every verse have its proper say, and then speak somehow the wholeness of it even if it blows people’s categories. This one usually does.
God is not evil to will that there be evil that he hates. It is part of his holiness that he wills that there be unholiness which he then hates. I’m trying not to steal any thunder from the morning messages, but RT told me, “You cannot steal my thunder. Say what you need to say.” So, I’ll take one minute to say it again.
Genesis 50:20, inspired by God, has a blessing coming out of the mouth of Joseph that he gives to his brothers, and he says, “You meant it for evil.” That is, “You hated me. You threw me into a pit. You lied about me and my dad and made me miserable for these years. You sold me into slavery and said, ‘Good riddance.’ You meant so much evil against me.” And then he adds, “God meant that for good.”
I say meant with emphasis on it because, in the verse, the verbs are parallel. The verse does not say, “You meant it for evil, and God used it for good.” That’s not what the verse says. The verse says, “You meant it for evil, and God meant it for good.” He meant it. He had a different design than they had, which means that over the fall and every evil in your life, there are two designs. There is Satan’s design and God’s design.
Satan is always designing your ruin and your unbelief and your hatred of God. If you come into a time of suffering and you start to get mad at God, you are perfectly agreeing with Satan’s design in that suffering. But if you come into suffering and instead of embracing Satan’s design, you say, “Oh God, Satan is meaning this for my destruction, and maybe some humans are meaning it from my destruction, but I know you are not meaning it for my destruction. You are meaning it for my good and the people’s good who are going to watch me rest in you in this,” then it will have achieved God’s beautiful, beautiful purpose.
I read Romans 8:20–23 last night. Perhaps we don’t need to read it again, although I think I will just quickly because God, when he saw the fall that he ordained, also ordained that there would be a physical catastrophe in the world so that natural calamities would display at the natural level the outrage of the moral level of unbelief. That’s what I unpacked last night. Let me read these verses again. Romans 8:20 says, “The creation was subjected to futility.” Now, that’s God decreeing that this beautiful, perfect, universe that he made collapse into ruin. Paul continues:
For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
I’ll tell you, there is not a much more important passage in the Bible for my pastoral ministry to suffering people than that, because Paul seems to want to stress in Romans 8:23 that even we who have the Holy Spirit groan, waiting for the redemption of our bodies.
Have you ever watched anybody die? I’ve watched so many saints, golden saints, die. Oh, there was a woman named Ruth Fast in our church. She was the greatest prayer warrior at Bethlehem for years, and she couldn’t die. Her tongue turned black as cinder, and she was almost crying out, “Oh God, oh God, why can’t I die? Please let me die.” Then she had hallucinations of lewd dancers around her hospital bed. I mean, Satan beat up on Ruth like I’ve never seen a saint be beaten up.
If that verse isn’t precious for that, I don’t know what is. Even we, like Ruth Fast, who have the firstfruits of the Holy Spirit in us, that overflow day after day at Bethlehem in prayer for me and others, have to groan, waiting for the redemption of our bodies. Then what can you say? I love Paul’s realism. I really love the Bible’s realism about suffering. God sentenced the world to suffering.
He Does Not Grieve from His Heart
Now, there are some amazing verses about his design in that. Listen to this one. Ezekiel 33:11 says:
As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked . . .
When you hear that you’re just rocked back on your heels, saying, “God, if you don’t have pleasure in the death of the wicked, then why do you let them die? I mean, you’re God.” Here is a partial answer to that question from Lamentations 3:32–33. It’s an amazing verse:
Though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not afflict willingly (from his heart)
or grieve the children of men.
Now, that troubled me so much when I read it, because I was trying to put it together with everything I’ve said so far. I don’t want to deny any verse because I’ve got another verse in my back pocket. I looked up the Hebrew on what “willingly” means, because it says, “He does not afflict willingly or grieve the children of men.” Well, the context is the rape of Jerusalem, which God ordained. He sent Babylon against Jerusalem and they were eating their children, and he knew it would happen.
Here, he says, “I didn’t do it willingly.” Someone could say, “Well, who’s twisting your arm? You’re God.” The word in Hebrew is milibō. It’s a combination of three little Hebrew words — mi (from), lēb heart, and ō (his). Those words mean “from his heart.” Let me read it with that literal translation:
He does not afflict from his heart
or grieve the children of men.
That means that I’m driven now to adjust my conception of God, and say, “All right, God has levels of enthusiasm or levels of willing about what he does.” Some things he does, though he does not do them from his heart, for wise and holy purposes that may grieve his heart temporarily, as it were, in order that something grand and glorious and God-exalting and loving would come to pass.
Every Blessing Flows from Calvary
Now, with the fall into sin and the fall into futility, the stage is set for the arrival of Good Friday. All I’ve been doing is trying to show you that the point of the universe is that the greatness of the glory of the grace of God most fully manifest in Jesus Christ’s sufferings had to be prepared for, and it was prepared for by the fall of man into sin and the fall of the universe into futility. And now, in a world where there are crosses and torture, God’s Son can come. The cross is ready, the Romans are ready, the Jews are ready, the Gentiles are ready, Pilate is ready, Herod is ready, and wickedness is ready to devour God’s Son. Now is the time to send him. There’s no doubt that’s the way Jesus thought over and over again.
See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise (Mark 10:33–34).
He is saying, “This is why I have come. I came to be slaughtered.” Now, what’s going to make us sing about this is that every blessing that you enjoy and will enjoy forever was bought by that suffering. I’m just going to close by reading the list. There are seven of them. They’re very short. These are the things that Jesus, in his suffering, accomplished for you. These are the things about which songs will be written and sung forever and ever and ever, and none of it could be sung without the suffering of Jesus. Jesus could not have suffered without a world like this. This world is radically Christ-exalting, even when it doesn’t know it.
1. Christ Absorbed the Wrath of God
Christ absorbed the wrath of God on our behalf, and he did it by suffering.
Galatians 3:13 says:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” . . .
The wrath of God was absorbed in Jesus, as it were, and taken off of you. There is therefore now no condemnation and no wrath on the children of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). And he did it by suffering, and therefore, we will sing of the grace of God in his suffering forever.
2. Christ Bore Our Sins
Christ bore our sins and purchased our forgiveness when he died on the cross in his suffering.
First Peter 2:24 says:
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree . . .
Isaiah 53:5 says:
He was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities . . .
The weight of guilt and the weight of sin is off you. It’s off you because he bore it. He didn’t just bear the wrath of God; he bore all our guilt and all our sins in himself, and he did it by suffering. We’ll sing to the praise of the greatness of the glory of the grace of God in that pinnacle demonstration forever and ever.
3. Christ Provided Perfect Righteousness
Christ provided a perfect righteousness for us that becomes ours in him, and he did it by suffering.
Philippians 2:7–8 says:
but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
That obedience unto death on the cross is the obedience which in Romans 5:19 is made over to you in justification. Many are counted righteous and many are counted obedient because of his obedience. It had to be obedience unto death, even death on a cross. Your imputed righteousness is owing to the sufferings of Jesus Christ.
4. Christ Defeated Death
Christ defeated death, and he did it by suffering.
Hebrews 2:14–15 says:
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.
Death has been destroyed precisely through the sufferings of Jesus. Therefore, you can walk out of here in a few minutes totally unafraid of death as you leave and you’ll trace it all back forever and ever to the sufferings of Jesus Christ, and you will praise the greatness of the glory of the grace of God for it.
5. Christ Disarmed Satan
Christ disarmed Satan, and he did it by suffering.
I love this one. It’s so pastorally relevant. Colossians 2:14 says:
[The record of debt] he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
So on the cross, two things happened according to that verse. First, he nailed the record of debt. Do you know that you have built up a very long record of debt against you in heaven? Do you know what happened to that record of debt on the cross? It got nailed there so that it doesn’t get nailed on you. Then, Paul says, in doing that, he disarmed Satan.
What does that mean? Satan beats up on you big time. He can even kill you, according to Revelation 2:10. But you know what he can’t do? He cannot damn you because the only weapon with which Satan could damn you is the weapon of unforgiven sin. God took it out of his hand. He has no weapon. He’s in the courtroom with no brief. He has no folder, and he can’t put anything on the table to say, “That’s what they’ve done. That’s what they’ve done. You must damn them because they did this and this and this,” because God took it out of his hand, nailed it to the cross of Jesus, and Satan is now like a fangless dog gumming you. He can gum you pretty bad, but he can’t damn you. When people come to me and they’re terrified of Satan, and they’re seeing green things on their ceiling and their house is shaking at night, I don’t say, “Oh, you’re having hallucinations.”
I’ve seen Satan do some pretty awful things in this world. If you grow up in Nigeria, or someplace where there are voodoo or witch doctor things, you don’t play fast and loose. I simply say to people, “Those green things can’t damn you. Laugh at them. Say, ‘You can’t have me. The only thing that could take me to hell is unforgiven sin, and all my sin is nailed to the cross because my King Jesus suffered for me. Have at me, Satan. Make me as miserable as you can. I’m going home. Make my day.’” I think that’s the way we ought to talk to the devil.
6. Christ Purchased Perfect Healing
Christ purchased perfect final healing through suffering.
All you disabled people — and all of us who have some disease and we’re going to die, and that’s everybody — you’re going to be well someday. I just loved what that woman said on that video about what’d you do as a Christian with AIDS people. She said, “Of course, we use drugs. Of course, we ameliorate suffering. Of course, we do everything we can to lift the burdens of guilt and stress in marriage, but mainly we have something nobody else has. If they’re going to die in six months, we have the best news in all the world. You can go to Jesus forever and be totally healthy, healthier than you’ve ever been.”
The verse for this is Isaiah 53:4, which says:
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
The Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Revelation 7:17).
That’s what the slain Lamb will do, and we will praise him to the glory of God’s grace forever.
7. Christ Will Bring Us to God
Christ will bring us to God, which is the goal of the gospel, and he will do it by suffering.
First Peter 3:18 says:
Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God . . .
My point is that the point of the universe is that the greatness of the glory of the grace of God would be praised forever and ever. That’s why the universe was made. The second point is that aim came to its supreme climax on Good Friday as the one infinitely undeserving of suffering, who is so holy that he deserved no suffering at all, bore all of my suffering, and I totally deserved it. In that substitutionary suffering, he displayed the grace of God more fully than it ever was and ever could be displayed. Therefore, point number three is that we are going to be praising this forever and ever and ever. This is why we were made, to see and savor and sing about the display of the grace of God in the sufferings of Jesus forever and ever.