In last month’s column, I looked at the bad experiences of the Old Testament prophets. I noted summary statements made by Jesus and Stephen about how every single Old Testament prophet was persecuted and attacked for his message. Ultimately, they were being attacked for the gospel message, because their message was one of judgment and salvation, both from the hand of God.
In the New Testament, we see how the suffering of all the prophets finds its ultimate fulfilment in Jesus Christ, the greatest prophet. The prophet who suffers for all the same reasons that the Old Testament prophets suffered, namely because of sin. Yet he is also the one who suffers completely alone, because he pays the price for the sin of every human being.
How is Jesus’ suffering relevant to our overall topic, the difficulty of gospel ministry? It is because of the fellowshipping nature of Christian faith: anyone who trusts in Jesus is promised a share in the sufferings of Jesus. Romans 8:17 tells us, “… and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him”.
Jesus’ suffering relates to our ministries in at least three ways:
- In the plan of God, it was necessary for Jesus to suffer and die.
- Jesus calls on anyone who trusts him to share in his suffering.
- Through sharing in his suffering we will reach resurrection glory. These three points are generally true for anyone who is a Christian and specifically true for anyone who wants to be a minister of the gospel. That means all of us, in one way or another, because anyone who is a Christian is by definition a servant of the gospel.
1. The necessity of Jesus’ death
A look at any Gospel reminds us just how prominent is the promise of the death of Jesus. He keeps predicting it, and his disciples keep missing the point and disbelieving him. The classic example is Peter’s recognition that Jesus is the Christ, and immediate refusal to accept that he will suffer and die. Peter earns the rebuke, “Get behind me Satan” (Mk 8:29-33).
Why was it necessary that Jesus suffer and die, before entering into his kingly glory? It was necessary for one reason, and for one reason only—our sin. Sin is deadly serious and, to my mind, the convincing proof of this is that Jesus had to die on the cross. When a doctor sees a patient with a small bleeding mole and sends him immediately to the operating table, it becomes clear how dire the situation is—a malignant melanoma. You really know how serious a problem is when you see how serious the solution is.
In the same way, we sometimes look at our lives and notice a few minor problems here and there, a few symptoms of sin, but nothing to write home about. It is not until we recall that to deal with our sin God sent his only son to die on the cross, that we see ourselves in a proper light. The Lord of this creation became a man, suffered and died, because of my sin. It is not as if you could just cut out that malignant mole on your own back using the bathroom mirror to help. You needed the death of Jesus to put you right with God.
The gospel minister first and foremost needs to see the necessity of Jesus’ death on his or her behalf. Do you know this? Do you understand how much God loves you and how much it cost him to put you right with him?
2. Share in his sufferings
Mark 8:34 is crystal clear:
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 and for the gospel’s will save it.
Being a Christian means dying to ourselves and our own ambitions, and living to Christ. It means being a person who stands up for the gospel, as a servant of the gospel. It means suffering.
Time and again, by both word and example, Jesus and the New Testament writers warn of how much suffering and difficulty will be involved for anyone who is to be a gospel minister.
And how could it be otherwise? Our own Lord was crucified. Could we expect any better treatment than him? As Paul teaches again and again in his letters, we died with Christ. If we don’t die with him, we don’t live with him.
When you first become a Christian, everything seems so obvious—the gospel is going to win the world, we just need to trust it and get on with the job. As someone who has been a Christian for more than 25 years, as far as I’m concerned that is absolutely true. The gospel really is lifechanging. But this confidence needs to be tempered by the knowledge that every step of any victory that God chooses to give us will come at immense personal cost. Jesus’ glorification to the right hand of God could only come after he humbled himself to death on a cross. And if your ministry is going to be worth anything at all, you too will pay the price. Jesus says:
Blessed are you when others 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 they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matt 5:11-12).
We shouldn’t fear persecution to the extent of avoiding it, but nor should we be blind to the reality that this is what is going to happen to us if we are effective gospel ministers.
3. Wait for resurrection glory
My wife and I have known some of the sufferings of ministry—in our relationships, in opposition from those we thought were in fellowship with us, financial and health struggles. But we can also see that it has been well and truly worth it, for the joy of seeing the gospel at work wherever we have been serving the Lord. But something else has driven us on.
The promise of Scripture is that, as we share in Jesus’ sufferings, we will also share in his glory. Along with Romans 8:17, there is the promise of Jesus himself in Mark 10:29-31:
Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.
This is really one of those fundamental Bible truths that you can’t illustrate. Suffering now, glory later. Why can’t we illustrate it? Because we are really trying to describe the nature of heaven, and eternal life with Christ. We can’t illustrate it because no-one’s seen the original to know what it is we’re illustrating. The faith we have is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Heb 11:1). The best attempts at illustration are in the final chapters of the book of Revelation, and even there we sense a straining at the boundaries of language.
If we can’t illustrate it, we can hope for it with a confident hope, remind each other about it, and pray that we will all share in the reality of relationship forever with Jesus in heaven, living in the house that he’s prepared for us with the name that he’s given us. What a marvellous thing to look forward to.
And we can pray with Paul his prayer in Ephesians 1, that God may give us a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of our hearts enlightened, that we may know the hope to which he has called us, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe.
Exercise: 10 questions for suffering ministers
This exercise may be useful in small groups, as a way of discussing suffering and perseverance in ministry.
- Do you struggle with believing in your own need for salvation? If so, why do think this might be?
- Pray together that you will remain convicted of your own sinfulness and your need for salvation.
- Explain to each other your answer to this question: “Why did Jesus have to die?”
- Have you suffered in your Christian ministry? Share some of your experiences?
- Pray for other Christians around the world who are suffering for their faith. Ask God to give them perseverance and hope.
- Pray the same things for one another.
- What kind of suffering do you imagine may come to you in your life and ministry? How can you prepare to meet this suffering?
- Has suffering caused you to lose any hope or to doubt God’s goodness? If so, share these difficulties and think about how you can address them. Pray together about this.
- Is our glorious future a motivation for you in your ministry? If so, in what ways does it strengthen you? If not, why do you think this is the case?
- Pray Paul’s prayer from Ephesians 1, thanking God for everything he has done for us in Christ.