42. Suffering for the Church

Meditations in Colossians: 42. Suffering for the Church

Col 1:24   Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.

And so the strange, even alien, phrases continue to appear before us in Paul’s writings, phrases and concepts we are so often happy to pass by with little thought. From the great and glorious paragraphs about the gospel, salvation and the wonder of Christ, for a moment it seems, we fall back to see Paul himself again. There has been much pure doctrine in the verses we have considered but every now and then Paul himself comes to the fore: We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you,” (v.3) and we have heard of your faith,” (v,4) andwe have not stopped praying for you,” (v.9) and “This is the gospel….and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.” (v.23) and then finally our present verse. Paul’s letter contain a lot of doctrine but also a lot of personal expression.

So he starts this verse with, “Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you.” The truth is that the Gospel never comes easily. Paul’s focus there is on what was “suffered for you.”  Someone had suffered to get the Gospel to them there in Colosse and that person had been Epaphras (v.7). He had obviously brought the Gospel to them, established believers and then came under attack from the heresies of the day, so he returned to Paul in Rome (probably)  for him to write this letter countering so much of the heretical teaching that had been going on. It is a battle to bring the Gospel and a battle to hold on to the truths of it. Beyond this we don’t know what Epaphras went through. We do know that it would have cost time and energy to travel so slowly from place to place, often on foot, often by sea with its perils in the Mediterranean.

When we come to the middle part of the verse we come across an idea or concept that is alien to many of us: “and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions.” Taking the latter part first, there is implied that for Christ to bring the Gospel to his world – whether in the single body during his earthly ministry, or his wider body, the church, throughout history – he (and we) will suffer afflictions. Now an affliction is simply something imposed on us from outside of us. A missionary in Africa or Asia might be afflicted with malaria. They may also be afflicted with persecution. Now I believe we may also stretch the word ‘affliction’ to include things we impose on ourselves by taking up the call to go with the Gospel, so we may speak of sacrifice of family ties, and home comforts, and the affliction of loneliness, misunderstanding and so on. These things are part of the package that goes with the Gospel being shared around the world.

Paul spoke of the things he suffered in the course of his ministry in an amazingly open outpouring: “I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” (2 Cor 11:23-28) His life and ministry may have been exceptional but these are the sort of things he refers to when he says, “I fill up in my flesh.” i.e. these are the things I have physically experienced. Read back over those verses above and see that so much of it involved physical struggles.

Modern sharing the Gospel across the world is mild by comparison. In the past when I have traveled abroad I was away from my family for up to three weeks (in a day before Skype or e-mails provided a link). In the middle of the night in Hong Kong, I suddenly became aware of the thousands of miles of rock between me and my wife as I imagined her on the other side of the globe. Sitting on a plane for ten to thirteen hours is tedious and tiring but nothing like the endeavours of Paul and his fellow apostles. When I first went east, I suffered culture shock, a relatively minor shock to the system. And then I came across some missionaries in preparation. One couple were about to make their way to Outer Mongolia where the nearest Westerners would be over five hundred miles away. As I encountered these and other similar missionaries getting ready for a life of privation, I recognized that I was in the company of a different brand of people. These were those who were giving up their lives, giving up their families, giving up their careers, to go and take the good news of Jesus to peoples who had never yet heard, and all they looked forward to was affliction! These are mighty people!

Paul finishes the verses with, “Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.”   Christ is in the business of growing his body so that his Father’s kingdom may be expanded and the world blessed and his Father honoured. These afflictions come and are experienced that this end may be achieved. Jesus himself was misunderstood, reviled and rejected and then crucified. These were his afflictions  while he was on earth in a single body. Since then his body has received beatings and burnings, impositions and imprisonments, derision and death, and so even today in varying measures around the world, it continues. It is the cost of sharing and maintaining the Gospel.

56. Where is Wisdom?

Meditations in Job : 56.  Where is Wisdom and Understanding

Job 28:12,13 But where can wisdom be found? Where does understanding dwell? Man does not comprehend its worth; it cannot be found in the land of the living.

In this final discourse from Job we have noted his cynical challenge to his friends (26:1-4), his acknowledgement of the mystery of God (26:5-14), his claim to righteousness (27:1-6) and his acknowledgement that God deals with the wicked (27:7-23).  Next he challenges the very basic premise of these friends – that wisdom and understanding can be found this side of heaven.

In chapter 28 he ponders on where wisdom comes from. In 28:1-11 he simply speaks about man’s activity in mining gold (v.1), iron and copper (v.2), and sapphires (v.6). He majors on the great endeavours that are needed to dig deep into the earth to find these things of great worth, and he does this to contrast the finding of wisdom.  In our verses above he asks where wisdom can be found.  Man doesn’t value it, he maintains, so it is in very short supply. It’s not in the natural world (oceans, v.14), it cannot be bought (v.15,16) and yet its value far exceeds that of precious stones (v.17-19).  Where therefore does it come from, he asks again (v.20), for it is hidden from us (v.21) and even the afterlife hasn’t got it (v.22).  No, he concludes, God understands the way to it and he alone knows where it dwells,” (v.23).  Why? Because, “he views the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens.” (v.24)  i.e. because the Lord knows everything and sees everything and therefore knows how everything works (v.25-27).   Moreover, He has declared to man that, “The fear of the Lord – that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.” (v.28) i.e. wisdom comes with a right relationship with the Lord and a life that flows out of that relationship. This is what wisdom is all about.

In chapter 29 he looks back on how things had been, before these calamities had come upon him. He remembers how God had been with him and he had been blessed (29:1-6). In those days he had been respected in the city (29:7-11) because of all his good works in helping the poor and needy (29:12-17).  In those days he had felt utterly secure (29:18-20) and his counsel had been gladly received by all who sought him out (29:21-25).

In chapter 30 he faces what has happened.  Now all that has changed!  He had counseled and sought to help those who were the dregs of society (30:1-8) but now their sons mock him (v.1,9), they detest him (v.10), they throw off restraint (v.11), they attack him (v.12-14) and he is left in a place of terror (v.15).  Now he is in a place of physical anguish (v.14-19) and although he cries out to the Lord he gets no answer (v.20).  Indeed it seems like the Lord attacks him (v.21-23).  It’s like it’s all been turned upside down. “Surely no one lays a hand on a broken man when he cries for help in his distress.” (v.24)  That’s what you’d expect!

He thinks back to those he has responded to in similar situations: “Have I not wept for those in trouble? Has not my soul grieved for the poor?” (v.25) Might he not have expected similar?  But, “Yet when I hoped for good, evil came; when I looked for light, then came darkness. The churning inside me never stops; days of suffering confront me. I go about blackened, but not by the sun; I stand up in the assembly and cry for help.” (v.26-28)  Part of the awfulness of this trial is the absence of help, the failure to be given comfort. Instead of comfort he’s just received accusations (darkness) and ongoing anguish continues as he has to defend himself (churning inside) and his character has been blackened and he’s left crying for help.  He feels a total outcast, “I have become a brother of jackals, a companion of owls,” (v.29) and his physical affliction has just got worse: “My skin grows black and peels; my body burns with fever,” (v.30) and his inner anguish just gets worse: “My harp is tuned to mourning, and my flute to the sound of wailing.” (v.31).

As we have quickly scanned these three chapters of Job’s outpouring, we have caught again a little of the awfulness of what has happened to him, the terrible contrast between what was and what he now is.  We have also seen the awfulness of the lack of help, encouragement and solace.  It has been said that the Christian army is the only army that shoots its wounded.  Perhaps this is the original example of that.  When he needed comfort, all he received was criticism.  When he needed compassion all he received was condemnation. His afflictions are far more than merely physical, or even the loss of his family and life; his afflictions include that lack of understanding and feelings from his friends. How do we stand up under such scrutiny? How do we measure up in the light of our responses to the fallen around us?

46. God who Heals

God in the Psalms No.46 – God who heals

Psa 30:2,3 O LORD my God, I called to you for help and you healed me. O LORD, you brought me up from the grave; you spared me from going down into the pit.

If there is one thing that unites people in a common desire, it is the desire to be well. How many people do you know who enjoy having a headache, enjoy having tooth ache, enjoy having arthritis, enjoy having a sprained wrist? No we take pain killers, and go to the doctors. We want to get rid of these afflictions. When I was younger I thought how good it must be to be in a hospital bed, having time to think and to meditate on God’s word.  How unreal!

When you are ill, God feels a million miles away and you definitely don’t feel spiritual. Perhaps that’s why Jesus seemed to do more healing work than anything else: “News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them (Mt 4:24). “When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick.” (Mt 8:16).  “Many followed him, and he healed all their sick” (Mt 12:15) “Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them.” (Mt 15:30)  “The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them.” (Mt 21:14). Do you see this? Matthew could hardly stop writing it! It was what, in later periods of church history, we call ‘revival’, God unleashed!

Yes, it does seem that at certain times in church history in certain places and through certain individuals, God pours out His healing power. There do seem other times when it is not so frequent and indeed, seems sporadic – but God does heal! David knew that. From what he says we see that he had obviously just been through a crisis where he thought he would not survive. It seems he had been in a place of pride (v.6) but then the Lord had allowed him to do into a place of despair (v.7-10). From there he cried out to the Lord and the Lord healed him. Then there was joy (v.11,12)

Yes, it does seem as if sometimes the Lord allows affliction to come upon us to humble us when pride threatens us. How soon we feel weak and frail and inadequate! How soon we cry out to the Lord to come close in a new way. Yes, sickness can have a chastening effect. But is also seems that there are times when for no apparent reason, affliction comes (see Job) and our only recourse is to cry out to the Lord, but even in those times there is purpose – testing!  How will be respond to sickness?  Will we remain true, will we remain faithful.  Job knew this. The enemy through his wife sought to get him to respond less than righteously and cried, “Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9).

That’s what the enemy tries to get us to do when we’re down in sickness.  But Jesus never rebuked anyone for coming to him to seek healing. If anything he rebuked people for coming with little faith. He seemed to want them to come boldly and expectantly. He taught us to pray and keep on praying.  Yes it is right to hold a gracious attitude while we are waiting for healing, and in some the Lord wants them to come to a place of surrender that even accepts the sickness before He brings the healing – but He does heal!  It’s never something we can force out of Him. It is always a gracious gift, not earned, just freely given by ‘the Great Physician’.  He heals.