The Church’s Suffering - Colossians 1:24–2:5
Jesus never gave his disciples an unrealistic expectation of what was going to happen to them if they gave their lives to him and became members of his church. Please read these verses from Matthew 10 to see how honest Jesus was to his disciples, and by implication, us as well:
14 “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.”
16 “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. 17 Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. 18 On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. 19 But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say…”
21 “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 22 You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”
24 “The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master. 25 It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul [a prince among demons], how much more the members of his household!”
26 “Do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. 27 What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. 28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – 36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’”
38 “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”
That sobering description that Jesus gave to his disciples was all from one chapter of the New Testament, and there are similar warnings on almost every other page. Jesus was clear, the way of the Messiah is the way of his people, and that means suffering will precede glory.
A friend who I studied at Bible College with ended up taking his wife and two young children to Tibet, because there is a large tribe of people there who do not have an established church planted in their region. After learning the language of the people, they began sharing the good news of Jesus, and by the grace and mercy of God some of the people they spoke to believed.
My friend was reading the Bible with one of these local men and was celebrating the way God’s Spirit was at work in his life. They read one of the accounts of Jesus having authority over evil spirits in the New Testament, and it made this local man reflect deeply on what this could mean for him, as a disciple of this same Jesus. There was a lot for this man to consider because the area of Tibet is heavily influenced by Buddhism, and so the people live in fear of the spirits of their ancestors who they believe are in some way controlling their future. This new disciple decided to go home to think more about it.
Some time later he returned, full of joy. He burst into my friend’s home saying, “I know what this means! Jesus has authority over everything! We have no need to be afraid!” At this point my friend had a smile on his face from ear to ear, until the local man went on to say, “…and I have prayed to Jesus, that my life would be free from suffering. And I know that Jesus will do this for me.”
Now, we can all see how he connected those dots, but what would you say to someone who came to that conclusion?
In our day there are many preachers who would affirm much the same. Come to Jesus and your suffering will be over. Your health will improve, your relationships will all benefit, and your financial stress will be a thing of the past. These false teachers ask, ‘Isn’t God now your Father? And doesn’t your Father in heaven want good things for you?’ In some farming districts of the African continent, this ‘gospel’ has been heard to go like this, ‘Come to Jesus and your pigs won’t die, your sheep won’t miscarry and your crops will thrive.’ And when the question, ‘Is that really what Jesus says?’ is asked, the answer is often, ‘Don’t you believe God can do this?’ God forbid I lack faith in what Jesus can do…
This false gospel is not the gospel, it’s what we call ‘the prosperity gospel’, and it’s really no gospel at all. It’s grounded on promises that appeal to the worst part of our nature, and where Jesus encourages us to seek first his Kingdom that is not of this world, this false narrative encourages us that coming to Jesus will give us more of this world. More of what any person would want – depending on what people are seeking in any particular society.
The result is that these ‘churches’ are full of people who look just like the world. Their leaders are wealthy, charismatic people who appear to have their lives together. Their people are always smiling, because God-forbid you give the impression you’re a child of God who doesn’t have what they want… and although Jesus is on their lips, very few of them are genuinely seeking his Kingdom or his righteousness. Many of their followers remain the centre of their own stories, they come together to hear preachers affirm them of God’s love, but are never encouraged to consider the place of suffering in the life of a believer.
Because suffering is such a big theme in the bible, they don’t preach through its books but choose topics each week to suit their hearers. Where the Apostle Paul says to the church in Ephesus,
‘I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of any of you. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.’ (Acts 20:26–27)
These preachers are very selective of what parts of God’s Word they teach, because they have an agenda to feed the people what their ‘itching ears’ want to hear. It’s not that there are no genuine Christians there, but their diet is engineered. They’ll still hear parts of God’s Word, but it’s delivered in a way that is deliberately unbalanced when compared with the teaching of Jesus. And sadly the people it appeals to most are those who don’t want to know the truth that Jesus is opposed to this world and its ways, and unless we oppose this world and its ways we’ll never cleave to Jesus to receive what he came to bring. As our dear brother James says in the New Testament, with the staggering clarity that we love from him,
‘You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.’ (James 4:4)
Instead what we have in the bible is the truth, but a truth that can only be seen through the lens of God’s Spirit. This truth is that following Jesus will satisfy your longings, but not as we knew them before we were born again. When we realise who Jesus is, everything else seems to pale in significance, and by receiving Jesus for who he is, we also receive the fullness of what he came to give – received now in the Spirit, and physically when he returns to take us home.
That means we are no longer at home here, nor do we seek the things of this life. We are so captivated by Jesus that we follow him regardless of the cost, knowing the real cost was paid by him on the cross when he died for our sin. Everything changes from that point.
Where we used to seek approval from people, we now rejoice that we’ve been accepted by God. Where we used to make it our aim to justify ourselves in the eyes of others, we now celebrate being justified in the eyes of God. Where we used to value our physical health above all, we now value the fact that our souls have been saved. Where we used to love being served, we now seek to serve others, and where we used to seek comfort from this life, we now rejoice in the comfort of knowing our eternity is safe in the hands of our Father in heaven.
This earth is no longer our home, and what’s more, we now oppose its ways. That may make us enemies of the state, but what does that matter when you know you’ve got peace with God! And just like Jesus, we will suffer for being faithful to God’s Word, but we now count it a privilege because of what Jesus means to us. As Paul himself says in the passage we’re looking at this week,
‘Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you […] for the sake of his body, which is the church.’ (Colossians 1:24)
No Christian should seek suffering. But we know it’ll come as we seek to serve Jesus and his church in a world that crucified him and would do the same to us if it had the chance.