Blessed are Those Who are
8th of a Series of 10 messages on the “Beatitudes”. This sermon was delivered by Pastor Eric Chang on May 11, 1980.
Today we come to Mt. 5:10-12 which reads, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
In this connection I would like to read also the parallel passage in Luke 6 which presents the same truth in slightly different words. Lk. 6:22-23 reads: “Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy,” - literally jump for joy - “for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.” V26 reads, “Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.” Here we see the parallel in Luke that to the false prophets, everybody spoke well; but of the true prophets, people spoke evil. It is a very curious situation indeed showing that man in this generation does not know how to distinguish between a true prophet and a false prophet. The true prophets come under slander, criticism, reviling and rejection but the false prophets are well received and spoken of well by all men. The Lord Jesus warned His disciples: “Beware when all men speak well of you” because that is what happened to the false prophets. They were held in high regard by the people of their generation, whereas the true prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel were badly received and badly spoken of.
What is it that the Lord Jesus wants to teach us? Do you remember the first beatitude in v3 which began: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”? I would like you to notice the parallel with “the kingdom of God” in v10. There it says, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” and this time it refers to those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. This shows that we have come full circle back again to who are those to whom the kingdom of God belongs. Next time we shall study something about the order and the meaning of the sequence of these beatitudes and what is the spiritual meaning of this order.
Happy Are They Who Suffer
Today we shall content ourselves with studying the meaning of the words “Blessed are those who are persecuted.” Here the blessing is upon those who suffer. In other words, “Happy are those who suffer for righteousness’ sake.” Now, the last kind of people that this world regards as happy are those who suffer! We regard those who suffer as greatly to be pitied. I had often heard after I came out of China (where I once spent seven years under the Communists) people say, “How pitiable are those people in China! How much they have to suffer! How deplorable that they must go through all these sufferings!” I looked at them and I said to them, “They are the happy ones. You are the ones to be pitied.” When I said that I had in mind the words of the Lord Jesus, “Happy - blessed - are those who suffer for righteousness’ sake.” They are the fortunate ones. They are the blessed ones. “You Western Christians,” I said to them, “you are the pitiable ones. You are the one greatly to be pitied.” Whether happy or pitiable, it depends on which way you look at it. If you are looking at it from the spiritual angle, they are greatly to be envied for the spiritual blessings that come upon them. But of course the church is used to looking at things the worldly way.
What can the worldly church do but look at things from the worldly way. And looking at it from the worldly way, of course, you feel, “How pitiable is their condition! How much they have to suffer! How unfortunate! How terrible is their lot!” But the Lord is teaching us to think spiritually. If you are looking at things spiritually, you would feel, “How blessed it is to suffer!” In a moment we shall see why suffering is so blessed and what a great privilege it is to suffer! How joyful I was when in 1955 I was in Peking and attended the church of Wang Ming Tao. I remember how clearly he said, “I am not worthy to suffer for the name of Christ. But if God gives me this privilege, I shall count it a great blessing.” “Blessed are those who suffer” - Wang Ming Tao understood the lesson so well. It is a privilege and he did not count himself worthy of so high a privilege. Here is the distinction between thinking spiritually and thinking carnally. If you think carnally, you pity those who suffer. If you think spiritually, as Wang Ming Tao did, then you will regard it is a privilege - a high privilege - to suffer for the name of Christ, for righteousness’ sake.
The Value of Suffering in Rabbinic Teaching
Now let us consider some of the reasons why it is so blessed to suffer. Even the Jewish Talmud (Talmud means learning), the Jewish books of learning, have observed very clearly this: that in the OT it is always those who are blessed who suffered, or those who suffered who are blessed - whichever way because these are inseparable. The Talmud is written by Jewish rabbis, not by Christians. Sometimes I feel ashamed that the Christians have not the same insight and depth as some of the rabbis had. These Jewish rabbis, studying their Bibles, noted this very well as their observation: God chose Noah because Noah was persecuted, rejected in his generation. He was excluded. He was standing out in righteousness in a generation of wickedness.
Or think of Abel. Abel was persecuted by his brother; indeed he was put to death by his brother. But God chose Abel and not Cain. Or take Isaac, these Jewish rabbis say. Isaac was persecuted by the Philistines, as we read in Gen. 26:27. And God chose Isaac, the one who was persecuted. Look at Jacob. Jacob was constantly persecuted by Esau. And God chose Jacob, not Esau. “Jacob I loved, but Esau” - the persecutor - “I hated.” [Rom. 9:13] Then look at whom God chose. God chose Joseph - Joseph was persecuted by his brothers. God chose David and David was persecuted by Saul. And so on it goes in the OT. Even the rabbis had noticed that God chose the persecuted ones. Put in another way, those who are persecuted are chosen by God. Those who are chosen by God are persecuted. There is this constant relationship.
The Jewish rabbis also noticed that all the sacrificial animals in the OT were animals of peace. What were they? There was the lamb, the bullock and the heifer - these were all animals of peace. They were non-aggressive animals. They were always animals attacked by other animals like the lion, the leopard, and the wolf. Did you ever see a lion offered in the temple, or a wolf or a leopard? Oh no. These animals will not be accepted for sacrifice. Why? They were animals of death; they were animals of aggression; they were not animals of peace. But the animals of peace were animals of sacrifice. Now you see the connection with peacemakers: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” This connects right away with “blessed are those who are persecuted” because it is the peacemakers who are going to be persecuted. It is the peacemakers who are the most Christ-like. Why did Jesus take up His cross and suffer? Col. 1:20 tells us: to “make peace” for us “by the blood of His cross.” Why are we called to take up the cross and follow Jesus? To be peacemakers like Him. To make peace by through our cross-bearing, not that our cross can make peace or atone for sin in the same way that Jesus’ cross made peace, but yet we are to follow in His footsteps. We are also given the ministry, Paul says, of reconciliation. We are given this ministry of reconciliation, of being peacemakers, as we read in 2 Cor. 5:18-19 [and this ministry entails suffering].
The Godly Will Be Persecuted
Now the kingdom of God is a place of comfort, a place where God rules in righteousness. The kingdom of God is the place where you obtain mercy and salvation. It is the place where we have the vision of God. It is a wonderful place, a spiritual place - a place where God’s glory is revealed in salvation. All flesh shall see it together. Flesh shall see; it is not just a spiritual vision. But this flesh, of course, will be the flesh that has put on immortality. The question is: How then can we enter the kingdom of God? How may we inherit this kingdom? Here we have the answer, maybe not the answer that we like, but it is the answer that Jesus gives. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” How shall we inherit the kingdom of God? Who are those who inherit the kingdom of God? Those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake! Who might be the people who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake? It is those who are poor in spirit (who depend entirely upon God’s grace because they are poor; they have nothing of themselves), who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are merciful towards others, who are peacemakers. They are all the same people. These beatitudes do not speak about different people. They are the same people with all these different aspects. This means that if you start at the beginning, if you are willing to be poor in spirit, if you desire righteousness that you hunger and thirst for it, if you are prepared to be peacemakers, if you are merciful, you will be persecuted. Make no mistake about it. You will be persecuted.
The apostle Paul said in 2 Tim. 3:12 these very important words: “all those who will live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” You do not have to go and look for it. Persecution will come to you sooner or later. That is very important because if you never suffer persecution, you can be sure of one thing: there is something wrong with your Christianity! We are blessed if we are persecuted. We are blessed if we suffer. Why? Let me tell you one thing. Satan will not waste his time on you if you do not give him any trouble. He would not bother to persecute you because you do not give him the slightest trouble. You do not give him any headaches, why should he persecute you? You are not a cause of trouble to him. Satan will persecute those who give him an awful lot of trouble or whom he knows are going to give him trouble. Why should he persecute those who give him no trouble at all? We can see that one of the reasons why it is so blessed to be persecuted is because it proves that you are giving Satan a lot of trouble by the godliness of your life. It is not because you happen to have a louder voice than other people and not just because you are able to talk better than other people. Satan is not worried about those who talk a lot - too much of it is just hot air. What bothers him is the kind of people whose lives speak forth the glory of God, whose lives show forth the beauty of Christ. This kind of people, Paul tells us in 2 Tim. 3:12, who live godly lives, Christ-like lives, will surely suffer persecution. You will not escape. I will not escape. If you do not like to suffer persecution, the Lord Jesus tells you very honestly, “Don’t be a Christian. Don’t become a Bible type of Christian. Don’t become a true disciple, because if you become a true disciple, you are going to suffer persecution. That is guaranteed for you.” That is why the Lord Jesus said that if you are not willing to take up your cross and follow Him, if you are not willing to suffer, then you cannot be His disciple. You will not survive it.
Suffering is the Gateway into the Kingdom of God
What all this means is that suffering is the gateway, the pathway into the kingdom of God. There is no way you can enter into the kingdom of God without walking through the gate of suffering. Let us read Acts 14:22 where we see that that is exactly what the apostles taught the disciples in those days. Here Paul has just been given such a beating, such a stoning in Iconium that he was left for dead. We read in v19 that “Jews came there from Antioch and Iconium” and “they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead.” Well, Paul took a lot of persecution especially from the Jews. “But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city; and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra” - where he got the stoning - “and to Iconium and” - then finally back - “to Antioch, strengthening the souls of disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” How do you enter the kingdom of God? Through many tribulations! Now that is a very graphic way of speaking about it. Tribulations are portrayed as a kind of gate through which you enter the kingdom of God. You must enter the kingdom of God through those many tribulations. Tribulations, persecution, suffering is the gateway [and pathway] into the kingdom of God. Now that is very much like what the Lord Jesus Himself says in Lk. 13:24 when He says to strive and enter in through the narrow gate. Strive to enter in! How? Where? Through the narrow gate! Enter in where? Into the kingdom of God! How? Through the narrow gate! What is the narrow gate? It is the narrow gate of persecution, tribulation, i.e., suffering.
The Lord Jesus does not deceive any man. He is unlike so many preachers who would like to sugarcoat the pill and withhold the facts, and say, “Just become a Christian and everything will be nice and rosy. Everything will be fine! All you have to do is become a Christian!” The Lord Jesus said, “No, no. Let me tell you the truth. You want to enter into the kingdom of God? You want to enter into eternal life? The gateway is through suffering. Inside is beautiful, but it is not going to be easy to get in. It is a narrow road and you have to strive - the Greek word is literally to “agonize” - to enter in. The call is the call of suffering. This is the gateway into God’s kingdom. Nobody should be under any illusion about this. Truly, inside the kingdom is life, but the pathway into it is maybe through death. How else can we preach the truth but the way it is spoken by the Lord, “Blessed are those who are persecuted” - who suffer - “for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of God” It is this kind of person to whom the kingdom of God belongs.
Seven Reasons Why Suffering Is of Value
Let me show you from the Scriptures why suffering is of such great spiritual value so that when we suffer, we may rejoice in it and not think that something terrible has happened to us. Only when we understand from the word of God that suffering is such a great blessing, would we welcome it as a blessing and see suffering in its spiritual value.
Here we are not talking about suffering in general. I am not talking about suffering that happens to come to us through ill health because, after all, it is not just Christians who have ill health; non-Christians also have ill health. There is no great thing to talk about [this kind of] suffering. I mean, I am not the only one who has ill health; non-Christians also have ill health. It is not peculiar to Christians. There is nothing special about that. Though ill health is not due to righteousness but still I can endure it in a spiritual and Christ-like way. How you endure that trial is what makes the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian. A Christian who moans and groans whenever some suffering comes his way is not fit to be a Christian. Such a person does not understand the spiritual value of suffering. Here, we are talking about suffering that is for the sake of righteousness. This suffering is brought on because of our godly lives, because of righteousness in our lives, i.e., for righteousness’ sake.
I would like to share seven points from the Scriptures of the spiritual value of suffering that we may just welcome it with joy when it comes, remembering that it is the gateway into the kingdom of God.
1) We Suffer Because We Are Not of This World
First of all, we rejoice in suffering and in being persecuted because it shows us we are not of this world. It is the mark of a Christian, not the mark of the world. This is what the Lord Jesus said in Jn. 15:19. Let me read to you the value and the spiritual meaning of suffering as the mark of a Christian.
The Lord Jesus said this to His disciples in Jn. 15:19: “If you were of the world, the world would love its own.” They would not persecute you because you belong to them. They are not going to persecute you. “...but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” The world hates you because you are not of the world. If you are of the world, they would never persecute you. They would love their own. But because you are not of the world, that is why they hate you, that is why they persecute you. In other words, you are persecuted as a Christian because you bear the mark that you are not of this world. How do you bear the mark? In the righteousness in your life! The world cannot stand righteousness because righteousness [makes unrighteousness conspicuous]. It exposes the sin of the world. Have you noticed that a sinner feels very uncomfortable in the presence of the righteous man? Why? Because his life is already condemning him! The people of the world felt uncomfortable in the presence of Jesus because His life rebuked them. The righteous do not have to say a word but already their life makes them [unrighteous] feel uncomfortable because they cannot have someone so righteous [around them]. Have you noticed that if you were wearing a dirty dress and you go into the presence of those who are all wearing such beautiful, spotless dresses, you will uncomfortable; you feel out of place. Or if there was a crowd of people who were all dressed in a very filthy fashion and someone came in in a spotless white robe, it would make all those others immediately realize, “Hey! How dirty I am!” Why? “Now I realize it because I see the whiteness of that other person’s garments.” If you were one of them, they would not have noticed the difference. But now you are not one of them, therefore they hate you. Therefore they persecute you.
The world always likes to force people into their mold, to do things their way. Have you noticed that all your life, all my life, we have been subject to the pressures of this world? They want you to think their way. They cannot understand why you do not think their way. For them, money is the whole value of life. Money, money - everything is money. They cannot understand somebody who does not regard money as so precious. They cannot understand you.
As the father of one of our co-workers frankly said, “There is a communication gap between us because our sense of values is not the same.” He could not understand why a group of professionals, people who have professional training and able to make money in this world, actually refuse to make money! Instead what do they do? They study the Bible! For a man of the world, this is unintelligible. It does not make sense, because everybody wants money. Money brings power. Money brings status. It brings material satisfaction: you can look at nice color TVs; you can drive nice cars. And here are people who have the professional qualifications to do this very thing, and yet they do not do so. The world cannot understand it. And what is more is that this annoys them because somehow it condemns them for their sense of value. It negates their sense of values. It says to the world, “Your sense of values means nothing. Your love for this world means nothing to us, that all these things that you hold so dear, that is the object of your life, means nothing to us.” They feel convicted. They feel condemned. “What’s wrong with my sense of values?” they feel. They feel uncomfortable. They feel that they are after all living for nothing - nothing worth living for in your eyes. Of course that is true, but they do not like to hear that. It annoys them. It distresses them. It upsets them.
The mark of the Christian: they live not for this world, but for the world that is to come. They do not live for unrighteous mammon, filthy mammon, but for righteousness. The world cannot understand that. It condemns them! Sooner or later when you live in this way, you will be persecuted. First they will start saying bad things about you. After all, they said that about the Lord Jesus. The names that they called Jesus are incredible: “He is crazy. He is demon-possessed. He is out of His mind” and so on and so forth. If they said that of our Master and Lord, should we expect to be treated differently?
So, the first thing is that suffering shows that we bear the mark of a Christian. Only so will the world persecute us. If you think like the world, if you behave like the world, if you talk like the world, the world is not going to persecute you. Why should they? You are just one of them. But when you are different, then they are going to start hating you because your difference shows up their sins; you are going to be persecuted.
2) Suffering Purifies Our Faith
Secondly, the blessedness of suffering lies in this: it purifies our faith. It tests the genuineness of our faith. In 1 Pet. 1:6-7, this is exactly what the apostle Peter tells us. He says this: “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” The genuineness of your faith is tested by the suffering. Oh, we can all be Christians when being a Christian means having a good time, for example, when being a Christian means going with the church to have a barbecue somewhere. Who cannot be a Christian then? We all like barbecues. If being a Christian means we can all go on a special tour to the Holy Land, which I read in all these Christian magazines, ah, we can all be Christians. Who does not like going for a tour in the Holy Land or to Greece or to Turkey, where Paul once preached? Then it is nice to be a Christian. And it is nice to be a Christian because all these nice people are all encouraging you, and smiling to you, and clapping you on the back. Oh, it is nice to be a Christian when we can all go for a nice cup of tea after the service; it is so cozy. And all these nice Christian people, like the sisters in the church, are making nice cakes for us. It is so nice to be a Christian. Who would object to being a Christian? Under those conditions we can all be Christians. It is so nice to be Christians because on Sundays we can put on the best clothing we have. We can wear our beautiful ties when we come to church. It is such a special day that it feels good to be in church on Sunday. If you do not go to church, you feel you have missed something. And very rightly so, you really did miss something. But then, being a Christian is so enjoyable. But wait! Wait till you are being persecuted for being a Christian. I wonder how many would remain Christians.
That was the kind of Christianity we had in China - that kind of nice Sunday Christianity, nice church buildings, nice electric or other kind of organs. Such beautiful churches with stained glass windows! Where we are now, the ceiling is falling down. It is nothing compared to those Shanghai churches that we had. Our Shanghai churches were so beautiful. We even had carpets! This one here is not so good. You would have found churches where you have nice carpets, comfortable pews, and the atmosphere is so cozy. And then the Communists came into Shanghai. Oh yes, I went to a church once or twice with my parents. It was called the ‘Community Church of Shanghai’. It was a beautiful place. The garden outside was so nice with rosebushes and flowers. There was very beautiful glass in the windows. There was a lovely organ inside, which was so rich, and the fine organist just knew how to play that organ so beautifully. All these people were so beautifully dressed and they were so polite, so courteous. Oh, there were lovely people in the church. Then the Communists came.
The Communists were not nicely dressed. They wore green uniforms whose sleeves were rolled up, and a shabby cap with a red star on it. I used to watch them marching into Shanghai. They were dirty fellows with their gun belts, bullets and grenades hanging all over the place. They did not even look like those nice, dapper soldiers you see on TV. They marched in there with their variety of guns. Some had this kind of old-fashioned Japanese rifles. Some wore Japanese helmets; some wore American helmets; and some wore helmets from wherever they could find helmets. And you say, “What kind of army is this?” The only thing was that they knew how to fight. They came into the churches and all these nicely dressed people in church vanished. When the Communists came, where were the Christians? Oh, they would not want to be seen in church then because that would be embarrassing. All the Sunday Christians disappeared! There was only a small group of people left. They were not so nicely dressed because they could not afford to wear nice clothes. That small group of people were the real Christians.
Suffering purifies the church because it purifies the faith. It weeds out the false! Then I began to see the true Christians. Up to that point, I never wanted to become a Christian, not because I dislike nice clothes, but if that is all there is to Christianity, I am not interested in it. But when I saw what was left behind after the fire of Communism burned through the churches, my eyes began to open. Then I said, “These are real Christians. Now I see the true from the false.” Before that I did not know which were the sheep and which were the goats. I could not distinguish which was genuine gold and which was just phony yellow metal. Now I could see the difference. The value of fire, the value of suffering is that it purifies your faith. Should you not welcome it? Is it not beautiful? Those people who stayed behind - they were the people that had counted the cost and were willing to go on. They were people like Henry Choi that I had many times shared with you, who could have come to the West, and as a research chemist, would have made a good living. My father tried so much to persuade him to leave because my father had such a great respect for this man. He said, “Leave! Leave! Go to the West! Make a living for yourself.” Henry said, “No. Here is where the church is, here is where I stay.” I never cease to remember how much I owe him because, had he left China, I would probably not be standing here to preach the word of God today. So much under God I owe to him because he refused to run. He was willing to endure the fire, knowing as sure as anything that soon it would burn him, too. And he did not have long to wait. So that is the fire which purifies the faith.
3) He Who Suffers Ceases from Sin
The third thing we see about the value of suffering here in 1 Pet. 4:1 is that we cease from sin. Had we not longed to cease from sin? Well, why not let the fire of persecution do that for us? 1 Pet. 4:1 reads like this: “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same thought, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer by human passions....” Now what does this mean? People like Henry and others understand this. People who were willing to endure suffering are people of course who had rejected the appeal of the flesh. The appeal of the flesh was to go to the West - to make a good living, to have security and to escape the persecution that he knew was going to come to him. It must be a person who fully and consciously rejects the appeal of the flesh. These things that the flesh so craves for - that security, that wealth, that esteem - that come to people like him. These people have great ability, great intelligence, great inner innovative ability, like Henry who could invent so many things. And though he never left China, he could speak English without an accent. It is incredible! I do not know how he does it. For people who have lived years abroad and studied abroad cannot speak English without an accent; yet he who never left China can speak English flawlessly. If you did not see his face, you would have thought you were listening to an American speaking. Yet, he had never been out of China. He was one of those people with such exceptional ability and intelligence. Yet, the world has no appeal to him at all. And not even marriage! As I told some of you, he refused to even get married so that he may serve the Lord with undivided attention because he knew he would suffer. He said to me, “If I suffer, I would rather that I suffer alone, without having to consider the sufferings that my suffering would bring upon my wife and my children.” He prepared his mind so completely for the sacrifice that he refused even to be married, though he was a very attractive man.
So we see from these things that a person who suffers has ceased from sin, in the sense that he has turned his back upon sin, upon the world, upon the flesh. A person who consciously has decided that he will happily accept suffering for the sake of Christ has truly finished in his mind with sin. This does not mean he is sinless, but that he has made a break with sin. There is a big distinction there. So we find that it is this kind of person who understands the value of suffering because they see that it not only tests the genuineness of their commitment, but also enables them by God’s grace to break the power of sin in their lives. They use suffering to break sin in their lives. Suffering becomes a tool by which they progress spiritually.
4) Suffering Brings Us Under Subjection to God
Fourthly, and very closely related to this, is what we see in Peter in the second verse in the part we have not read yet: “so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer by human passions but by the will of God.” [1 Pet. 4:2] By the will of God! Suffering not only helps one to cease from sin, but also enables one if one depends on God’s grace - not on one’s strength but on God’s grace - to live by the will of God. Because no one will accept suffering who is not prepared to put his life totally under subjection to the will of God, will he? Of course not! Unless you are prepared to live totally under God’s will - not your own will but under God’s will - you certainly would not accept suffering. You will not accept it. You will fight back. You will kick back. You will groan and mumble. But you see what Jesus did: He put His life totally under God’s will, accepting suffering with joy - not with resignation but positively with joy. That is very important. Suffering provides us with precisely that opportunity to live willingly in submission to God’s will.
Suffering has such great spiritual value because it is through precisely this kind of suffering that we read in Heb. 5:8 that the Son Himself learned obedience, learned submission to the will of God. I have preached on this, as you know, last Easter. But this verse never ceases to speak to my heart: “Although he was a Son,” - that Jesus was a Son of God, or rather the Son of God, since the ‘a’ is not in the Greek, i.e., Greek has no indefinite article. “Although he was Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” If the Son had to learn obedience through suffering, how much more do we need to learn obedience through suffering? How do you learn obedience? Through suffering. Suffering is the school where we learn obedience. Where would we learn obedience if we did not have to suffer? It is suffering that teaches us the need to obey. It is in the midst of suffering that we learn obedience.
5) Spiritual Maturity Comes through Suffering
This takes us right on to the fifth point and that is in the next verse in Heb. 5:9: “and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him”. He was made perfect. How? Through suffering. As it says elsewhere but also in Hebrews, about the Son, the author of salvation, that it was right that He was made “perfect through suffering.” [Heb. 2:10] It is suffering that matures us. Spiritual maturity comes only through suffering. I hope you bear this well in mind. Suffering is the means by which we become spiritually mature.
The Lord Jesus expressed this in another way in Mt. 13, in the Parable of the Sower. In Mt. 13:5-6, He said that the seed that fell on rocky ground withered when the sun came up, because it did not have enough root. It never made it to the kingdom of God. There are those who received the seed but never arrive in eternal life, because they withered before they got to the harvest. They never made it, even though they received the seed. Now what is this sun that caused it to wither? In vv20-21 the Lord Jesus said that the sun is persecution and trials that come upon the person who receives the word of God. So, notice this: the sun which enables the wheat to grow - the healthy wheat that has root to grow - is also that which destroys those that do not have root. The sun, namely persecution, is life to one and death to another. It is the sun that brings maturity to the plants. Without the sun, as any farmer knows, these plants could not reach maturity. Yet the same sun which brings maturity and growth to those seeds that have root, brings death and destruction to those seeds that do not have root in righteousness. So here we find that it is persecution, like the sun, that brings maturity, i.e., ripeness to the harvest. In the same way we too must reach maturity through the scorching of the sun, through the heat of the sun. It is that which, if we have roots, not only will not damage us, but will cause us to reach full maturity.
I wonder if you have ever talked to servants of God who have suffered. Have you ever talked to a servant of God who has suffered? You will notice his maturity and depth that you will never find in those preachers that come out of seminaries, who have never suffered anything for the sake of Christ. There is a quality that is different. When I talked to Wang Ming Tao in Peking, I sensed the depth and the power of this man because this man suffered a great deal for Christ. He suffered already under the Japanese occupation in China. He suffered again under the Communists’ occupation. He suffered at everybody’s hands. But when you talk to this man - when you talk to Wang Ming Tao - you notice there is a depth, a maturity that you do not find in the other. After all, I have talked with many professors of theology. I have talked with many theologians in my time. There is a difference in quality that cannot be compared. It is just like talking to people from two different worlds. One person has all the knowledge stored up in the head; the other person has spiritual richness and depth and maturity. It is a privilege to talk to men like these - to Wang Ming Tao, to Yang Zi Jie, to Li Han Wen. These are servants of God. These are people who have matured under suffering. There is a vast difference in quality in these men. When they preach there is a difference in their preaching too. There is a difference in the maturity, in the power of their preaching. Such is the value of suffering, the spiritual value of suffering. So, the fifth point I want to share with you is the maturing effect of suffering which is so important.
6) We Complete What is Lacking in Christ’s Suffering
Let us go on to the sixth point of the value of suffering. It is what Paul says in Col. 1:24. It is something which is very important, and yet many Christians, especially Christians who have never suffered, have no way of understanding this passage. Paul as one who suffered a great deal in the cause of the Gospel understood this very well. Col. 1:24 is a great stumbling block to the academic commentators. It reads: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake...”. Notice he rejoices. He is very happy about sufferings; he is not at all groaning or complaining about being a martyr, saying: “Look here! Look what I have to endure.” He says, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s affliction for the sake of his body, that is, the church”. Paul said, “I complete through my suffering.” So, why is he so happy? Why is suffering such a blessing? It is because in that suffering, he is completing that which is missing, which is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. Can anything be lacking in the sufferings of Christ? Oh yes, indeed! That is exactly what Paul is saying.
Christ’s suffering served to atone for our sins, but there is an aspect of suffering which is also important to the salvation of the church which Christ did not fully endure. And let us say it with all reverence because it is scripture. It is not something that I say. It is not something that Paul invented. It is something which is important to the salvation of the church but which is upon us to bear, which is for us to endure, for you and me to endure. If Paul did not suffer, how would the Gospel have reached the places which we just read, for example in Acts 14? In Derbe, Lystra, Iconium and throughout Macedonia and throughout Greece and throughout Asia Minor and throughout the places where Paul preached in Cyprus and Crete and on perhaps to Spain, or wherever the Gospel was not preached. Who would bring the Gospel to these people? Who? Who brings the Gospel to these people but those who are willing to suffer like Paul did. “I rejoice in my sufferings for you.” Bringing the Gospel to any place has a high price attached to it. Who suffers to bring the Gospel there? Those faithful servants of God, who else? So without their suffering, would these places receive the Gospel? Certainly not! Then, is not their suffering essential to the preaching of the Gospel? Certainly! Is not their suffering essential to the salvation of these people, in the sense that, without their suffering, the Gospel would never have reached them? Well, certainly. Well, then, is not this part of the suffering important to the salvation of the church, too? Certainly, for without that suffering, they do not receive the Gospel.
Now do you see that there is this part of suffering that is also essential to the salvation of the church? That part is for us to endure. That part is the part which Christ has left to us, to follow in His footsteps. “Take up your cross and follow Me.” Now, if it were not necessary for us to take up our cross, only necessary for Him to take up His cross, then there is no point of Him asking us to take up the cross. It is because we are to become fellow sufferers with Christ that He asks us to take up the cross. Well, there is nothing difficult to understand about this, is there?
But today we want to have a Christianity in which Christ does all the suffering and we do not have to do anything. Christ does all the suffering: He is the one who died, He does all the suffering. We just sit back and do the enjoying. What kind of Christianity is this? That is not the Christianity that the Lord Jesus taught. The kind of Christianity the Lord Jesus taught is that the gateway into the kingdom is through suffering, through your being persecuted. That through your being persecuted, other people receive the Gospel. Other people see the witness of your lives. Your lives shine as light in the world. Is light important? Of course it is important because if you do not have light, you stumble into the pit. You break your neck. You die in there. We are the light of the world that brings God’s salvation to a world that is perishing. But to be that light we have to burn out.
The other day we had a power cut at where Helen and I live. For five hours we did not have any light in the evening. So we had to light our candles and the candles gave forth such good light! I was saying to Helen, “These candles are so good! The flame is so long, so steady. Beautiful candles! They give such good light.” I have some candles that are forever getting drowned in the wax. You are forever trying to pull up the wick because the light is disappearing as the wax is drowning the wick. But this one burned steadily from beginning to the end - a shining, long light. It was about an inch-and-a-half flame, giving a beautiful light. It was very costly to the candle though, because to give that light, the candle steadily burned down, down, down, until it was no more. It burned out completely. It perished. The candle literally burned out so that we might enjoy the light, that we might not fall down the stairs and break our necks, that we might see where we are going and what we are doing. We have the light. We are to be light. The Lord Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. So shine!” Shining is costly; you will burn out in the process. You burn out - but others receive salvation. There is a suffering which we are called upon to bear. There is a sacrifice, a burning out that we are called upon that others might have the life of Christ. We are to channel that life to others, through our death, through our suffering. I hope you understand Col. 1:24 very well from now on. “I rejoice in my suffering,” said Paul. I am so happy. Why? “Because through my suffering I am making up that part which is lacking in the suffering of Christ, that part which I am called to bear that others might live.” Jesus died to bring that salvation - to make salvation possible - but that salvation would have stopped at Calvary if the disciples did not go out and bring that salvation to the rest of the world. He would have died and nobody would have known about it. That would have been the end. It was for the disciples to go out and tell the whole world. He commanded them: “Go ye into all the world and make disciples.” But to do that is costly. They have to suffer the whole way through. That part of the suffering, for the salvation of the world is for the disciples to bear, for the church to bear, for you to bear and for me to bear.
Remember: it is not only Paul. Do not say, “Well, that is only Paul suffering here. The whole point he is making here is that we should imitate him, that we should have the same mind as he had. In Phil. 1:30, in the previous letter, that is exactly what he said. We will read v29 first: “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ” - remember for righteousness’ sake - “you should not only believe in Him” - this is all that the church wants to do today, that is, ‘only believe’ - “but also to suffer for His sake, v30 engaged in the same conflict which you saw and now hear to be mine.” “You and I,” Paul said, “we are engaged in the same conflict, because you and I were both called not just to believe but to suffer. We are engaged in the same battle. And in the battle for the salvation of souls, as in any other battle, there will be casualties. Some will be hurt. Some will be killed. There is no warfare in which nobody comes out without a scratch. Everybody is going to get hurt.
Let us observe this value of suffering. It has a salvific value. The blessedness of suffering is that we are called to minister the life of Christ and the salvation of Christ to others. In that process, that part of the suffering is ours; that part is committed to us to bear. We cannot die to atone for the sins of others. Only the blood of Jesus can take away the sins of the world. But nobody would receive the blessing of that blood and that great salvation unless you and I carried it to the world. In doing that we take up our cross, our suffering. On this matter of suffering there are so many other parts of the Lord’s teaching in scripture that bear on this point. 1 Pet. 3:14-15 says exactly the same thing. This is what it says here: “But even if you do suffer for righteousness’ sake...” - notice this is exactly the same word that the Lord Jesus said [in the beatitude] “for righteousness’ sake” - you will be blessed.” Here Peter echoes the words of the Lord Jesus. Then he continues: “Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord.” Here again we are to have this readiness and to rejoice in the suffering for righteousness’ sake because in this way we bring the Gospel to others.
7) For Great Is Your Reward
Let us come to the last of these points - the seventh point here. Why should we then rejoice in suffering for righteousness’ sake? For all these above reasons, and more besides. The Lord Jesus said in Mt. 5:12: “for great is your reward”. Your reward would be great. Why will your reward be great? Because in suffering you will be well pleasing to God. And what else? You will be found in the company of the prophets, “for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Oh, it is wonderful! The privilege of suffering because thereby you find yourself to be among the prophets. You prove yourself to be a genuine prophet of God. You know all the disciples are called to be prophets, as we have just seen, to bring the word of God to others, to bring salvation to others. That was the work of the prophets. And when you endure suffering and bring salvation to others, you prove yourself not only to be a disciple but to be a prophet of God, a faithful prophet of God who brings the word of God, the word of life to others; not just in words but in your life. You are found in the best company there is. You are well pleasing to God. You are shown to be a true disciple and a faithful servant of God. Now is that not cause for rejoicing? You rejoice because it is to such that the kingdom of God belongs.
Here then we see the reasons why there is such great value in suffering, that it is such a great privilege to belong to God. In this way we must also, in conclusion, bear this in mind. We must suffer, if we must suffer at all, for righteousness’ sake. Let no Christian ever suffer for wrongdoing! Let no Christian ever suffer for doing things which are disgraceful, for speaking evil of other people, for slandering, for misrepresentation, for doing wrong things. The clause here is “for righteousness’ sake”, and not for any other reason. But if you do suffer for righteousness’ sake, rejoice in this: that you are among the prophets.
But that is not all. I have found, and I think all those who have suffered for righteousness’ sake in any measure, small or great, will have found that never is God’s presence closer to you than when you suffer. That is so wonderful! When you suffer for righteousness’ sake - here is another reason for the blessing - you will find God’s presence so close to you, as you have never experienced before.
You will find that actually also in the Scriptures, when you recall that when Paul and Silas were thrown into prison, they rejoiced at being in prison for the Lord’s sake. They sang hymns and praises to the Lord, and as a result of that, the Lord confirmed His presence with an earthquake. It was at such an earthquake that the jail fell apart. The presence of God in suffering! Time and again you will find this. In 2 Tim. 4:17, Paul was on trial for his life and he said this: nobody stood by me, “But the Lord stood by me.” God’s presence was so close to him in jail and at the trial. Suffering is so blessed because God’s presence is so close. I pray that all of us here will fully understand the spiritual value of suffering. May we never again find ourselves groaning or moaning but know that suffering is the spiritual blessing of the highest order to be welcomed with joy as a privilege.
Is the Church Making an Impact in the West?
When I speak about suffering here in the West, I sometimes wonder whether I am just wasting my time because I do not know that many Christians know anything about suffering. After all, what occasion do you have for suffering? If I were preaching this message in China, I would feel that everyone listening there would understand what I am talking about. They would be encouraged and strengthened. But when I preach a similar message in the West, I feel as though I am beating the air and talking nonsense, since nobody knows what persecution is about. Perhaps that day will come. Just live godly in Christ Jesus. Do not go looking for trouble, but live godly in Christ Jesus and soon that persecution will come.
One thing disturbs me greatly about the church in the West. The church in the West is either ignored or respected. Both of these things bother me a lot. Why? Because the scripture says, as I have said many times in this message, that “all who live godly in Christ will suffer persecution”. Then why is the church not being persecuted in the West? That bothers me. There is something wrong with the church, that the world does not bother to persecute it. Obviously the world is not impressed with the church because the church is saying absolutely nothing to the world. It is doing absolutely nothing. There is no light that is shining. Otherwise, believe me, this world will soon start persecuting us. But this church today that we have in the West obviously makes no impact.
It bothers me that not only is the church not persecuted, but it gets all kinds of special privileges and honor. Here in the West, we pastors are regarded as sort of rather high up in the world. We can countersign certain forms. If people want citizenship, we can sign [the forms]! There are other forms and we can sign those forms, too. We are among the people who are trusted by the government, like lawyers and doctors and all this kind of people. Only a select group of people can sign these particular forms, and we are among the people who can do so. It bothers me. I do not like this particular special treatment. I feel more at home when we get to the East where people despise and reject us. They think, “Pastors! They are only one grade higher than beggars! They are the scum of society! They are the kind of dropouts that because you cannot pass in anything else, you cannot get a profession in any other place, so now you have become pastors.” Good! Good! Now we are beginning to talk. We are despised and rejected. There is the joy. But the church today, how far we have gone in the West. I would to God that the church will begin again to live as the light, that the church again lives in such a way, in such a standard of godliness that the world begins to feel uncomfortable again. They would say, “Hey! We had better withdraw privileges from these guys. They are giving us too much trouble.”
The church today is not concerned to preach righteousness. It is not concerned to preach holiness. It just wants to preach dogma. And the world is not worried about dogma. They would be saying, “You like to believe in dogma, go ahead! You want to believe that Jesus did this and that, you go ahead! As long as you do not bother our lives, you can believe what you like. You can believe in the gurus; you can believe in transcendental meditation; you can believe in whatever you like. We don’t care what you believe; just leave us in peace.” As long as John the Baptist talked whatever he liked, they did not worry. But when John the Baptist said, “You are a sinner!” they replied, “What did you say?” Then he was in trouble. I would that God will revive His church in these days. In the meantime, let us have this desire and determination to take up our cross and follow Him.
(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church