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Missions 101

Thanks Be to God for a Biblical Theology of Suffering

Nov. 22, 2012By: Kristie Burns

In preparation for celebrating Thanksgiving, I have been reflecting on what truly causes my heart to overflow in thanksgiving to God.  The words of the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:14 came to mind, "But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere."  And with that Scripture, I was reminded of how thankful I am that God has taught me a biblical theology of suffering.  How did He drive home this glorious, life-altering theology?  He used Scott Haefmann's exposition of 2 Corinthians, particularly his exposition of the "triumphal procession" in 2 Cor. 4:14.  

Here is an excerpt from his article A Call to Pastoral Suffering: The Need for Recovering Paul's Model of Ministry in 2 Corinthians

As the antidote to this atheism of sentimentality, with its implicit health-and-wealth gospel driven by materialism and a search for social status, God sent Paul to suffer as an apostle of the crucified Christ, carrying his treasure in a “jar of clay” (4:7). Paul did not represent Christ, embody the gospel he preached, or mediate the power of the Spirit through great displays of rhetorical power, political savvy, and personal strength, but by suffering (cf. Acts 9:16; 1 Cor 2:1-5). In calling Paul to be a minister of the new covenant (2 Cor 3:4-6), God sentenced Paul to death (2 Cor 1:9; cf. 1 Cor 4:9). Or in the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 2:14, God was “always leading us to death in Christ like a prisoner in a Roman triumphal procession.” As he says elsewhere, “I die every day” (1 Cor 15:31).

Paul’s point is as simple as it is profound. Rather than calling his sufficiency into question, Paul’s suffering, pictured under the metonymy of “death,” is the revelatory vehicle through which the knowledge of God, manifest in the cross of Christ and in the power of the Spirit, is disclosed (cf. 1:3-11, 2:14-17; 4:7-12, 6:3-10, 11:23b-33, 12:9-10, 13:4). God uses Paul’s suffering, as the embodiment of the crucified Christ, as the instrument to display his resurrection power (cf. too 1 Cor 2:2- 5; 4:9; 1 Thess 1:5). This revelation took place in two ways. Occasionally God rescued Paul from adversity when it was overwhelming, as in 2 Corinthians 1:8-11 (cf. Phil 2:25-30). More often, however, God used these prior acts of deliverance to strengthen Paul’s faith so that he might endure his suffering with thanksgiving to the glory of God (4:7-12; 6:3-10; 12:9; 13:4; cf. 2 Tim 2:10).

Thus, Paul’s call to suffer as an apostle is the very means by which God makes his love and power known in the world for the proclamation and praise of his glory (1:3, 11, 20; 3:8-11; 4:4-6; 4:15; 9:11-15). If Paul’s suffering is the means of God’s self-revelation, then the manifestation of God’s glory is its ultimate goal. Moreover, Paul affirms that whenever God’s people, by trusting in God’s love, power, and promises, endure the same sufferings to which he was called as an apostle, they too manifest the power and glory of God in the midst of their adversity (1:7).

God’s goal in suffering, therefore, is to teach us that, in life and in death (as in all eternity), God himself is all we ultimately need. God never intends to destroy his people, nor will he allow anyone or any thing else to do so. Nor can anything separate us from the love of God in Christ (Rom 8:31-39). In placing Paul in a situation in which he despaired even of life itself (1:8), the only thing God destroyed was Paul’s self-confidence. In return, Paul received God himself. In response, Paul gave God praise.

In the three thesis statements of 1 Corinthians 4:9, 2 Corinthians 2:14, and 4:11, Paul therefore gives the theological basis for his conviction that his suffering, like the “death of Jesus,” mediates the resurrection power of God, i.e., the “life of Jesus.” Here Paul asserts that his sufferings are not merely coincidental, but are part of the divine plan for the spread of the gospel, since God’s power is expressed through Paul’s weakness.

To read the whole article, click here.

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