How does Jesus Give Purpose to our Suffering?
Sermon Passage: Hebrews 12:1–11 | Preached to SGF | 1-17-2021
By Peder Kling
Looking to Jesus for Purpose in Suffering
When we think of this matter of endurance in the Christian life—we often ask, “how can I know I will endure”? How can I know I will remain faithful to God for through lifetime of trials, pains, and tribulations? The way Hebrews readily answers this question is with a constant appeal to Christ, and to consider his faithfulness to God on your behalf. Right away in Hebrews 2, after describing Christ as the very imprint of God’s nature, and as being superior to angels,
2:1 | Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard”
What message have the NT Christians been hearing? A message about Christ! "Pay attention to the message, and teaching about Christ”, is the opening exhortation in Hebrews.
Then chapter 3 opens,
3:1 | Therefore, holy brothers… consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, who was faithful to him who appointed him [to be savior of his household], as Moses was also faithful in all God’s house.”
You see this, here? Can you see some sense of assurance that you will endure as the author begins to build his argument? Christ “was faithful” to God, and to God’s household. The next verse says “you are his household”, if you trust him by faith.
If you want assurance that you will endure faithfully to the end, you don’t look to yourself. You look to Christ, who has actually accomplished your salvation. Hebrew presses on to remind us that Christ has actually gone through the pain and sufferings associated with this world. He got through it in order so that he might look back upon you and assist you from his throne in glory. And as you look to him by faith, receiving as true all that is spoken of him in Scriptures, you will find in his priestly ministry to you the confidence you need to endure the trials of this world. So, look to Christ to find confidence in his ministry to you, for he is faithful.
Now our passage today gives us yet another call to look to Christ. There are actually two calls to keep your eyes on Jesus here. Verse 2, “let us run with endurance the race set before us, [i.e., how?] looking to Jesus”. So, the command here is not simply to run with endurance, but to actually look to Jesus (big surprise after everything he’s said so far). And then again, the same command in different words, shows up in verse 3, “Consider him who endured”. Look to him, consider him. Looking and considering Jesus, here, are the same.
Now, here's the really cool thing about our passage today. This time in Hebrews 12, when we look to Jesus, we aren't so much going to find in Jesus confidence in our sufferings, but purpose in our suffering. So far, we have been given all kinds of reasons to trust Jesus, and his ministry to us, through sufferings. But we haven’t seen God’s good purposes to us in our sufferings. So, we yet again are called here to look to Jesus.
God never wastes the sufferings of his people—especially the sufferings of his Christ, our elder brother. Perhaps you remember Hebrews 2:10, “It was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.” It was fitting to God to make Christ suffer—that is, he had a purpose for Christ's sufferings. And we'll see today that God's purposes for Christ's sufferings overlap with his purposes for our sufferings.
That’s why Hebrews calls us to look to Jesus—in this passage. To transform the way we regard our sufferings.
Two Ways Christ's Sufferings Give Purpose to our Sufferings
This passage teaches us to regard our sufferings in two ways, which we will see today. First, we will see how to regard our sufferings in the bigger picture that God has for us in Christ. Then secondly, we will see one way we ought to regard our sufferings in the moment of our sufferings.
1. Regarding our suffering through the big picture of Christ's Sufferings.
How should we regard our sufferings in the big picture of God’s purposes? Verse 2 gives us the answer. We are called here to endure sufferings by looking to Jesus as the “pioneer and perfecter” of our faith.
Now, if you’re looking at your Bibles—and I’m looking at mine, we all might have different words there depending on our translation. As I said last week, the KJV says “the author and finisher” of our faith. The ESV says the “founder and perfecter of our faith”. The NIV is the translation I just used, again, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith”. So, a range of translations here.
And the basic question which translators are seeking to answer is how we should regard the word “faith”, here. Let me show you a few ways we use the word “faith”, and why this is so important for today’s passage. We can mean it with reference to the personal act of believing—so, Romans 10:10, “it is with your heart that you believe [or, have faith] and are justified”. So if “faith” is described this way, you might go with the KJV and say that Jesus is the “author and finisher of our faith”. He authorizes, or writes the faith within your heart, and he sees to it that you finish this life by faith so that you will enjoy fellowship with him in glory. He is the “author and finisher” of our personal faith that saves us. I actually used this passage briefly last week to illustrate this very point when I was trying to show you that faith is a gift that Christ works into your soul when he irresistibly reveals himself to you, and you can’t help but receive him by faith, and continue pursuing him as he pursues you. Now, is that what this passage is saying? I think it’s an implication, but I don’t think this is immediately what this passage is describing.
The word “faith” in this passage could be understood in two other ways, and I think these two ways collapse on each other to form one idea. But to see what I’m talking about here, we have to do some grammatical work first. The word “our” in most translations, as in the author of “our faith” is not in the Greek. That’s something the KJV supplemented in there in the 17th century, and some modern translations followed suit. In reality, the greek doesn’t say “our faith” there, so as to personalize faith, but “the faith”, so as to objectify faith. That is—the word “faith” here may describe “the faith”. We’re not talking about our personal experience of believing by faith. We are talking about “the faith” as something we confess. When we confess “the faith”, or believe “the faith”, we’re talking about what we believe by faith rather than our experience of faith. We confess “the faith” when we confess Christ. The book of Acts uses the word “faith” this way a lot. Priests in Acts 6 become obedient to “the faith”; or Paul and Baranabas in Acts 14 are described as encouraging the church to continue in “the faith”.
Now, when you continue in “the faith”, who are you? You are “the faithful”. Grammatically, that’s another way you could take the word “faith” in Hebrews 12:2. So, when you understand “the faith” that way, you would probably be more in line with what the NIV and ESV translations are getting at. We are to “look to Jesus, the pioneer—or, the founder—and perfecter” of the faith, or “the faithful who profess the faith”. He has pioneered for them “the faith”, and he has pioneered “the faithful”—he’s gone out before them, and perfected their faith (or perhaps them).
I’m almost positive that’s what this passage is most immediately trying to show us. Jesus is the pioneer of the faith we confess. He pioneered it, he created it and made it something to really believe upon. And of course, this means he is also the pioneer of the faithful who follow him. He pioneers us, and what we believe. He is truth, and he leads us into truth, and gets us to our destination. Like a pioneer or captain, he’s charting new territory. He’s bush-whacking through thick deserts and making the path accessible for those who would follow him to the final destination in glory.
So then, this passage is saying to you, “consider where Jesus went, and follow him.” “Look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of the faith—even of the faithful—who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” And, the next verse, “consider him, your pioneer who paved a path for you to glory, who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted”.
Do you see the exhortation here? This is a call to look to your pioneer, your captain who has gone before you to offer you a way to glory through suffering. And, you are to consider him and all his ways as you follow him; to imitate him. Let’s say a captain of a fleet of ships sets sail on uncharted waters, and he finds an island of paradise that he wants to bring his whole fleet to. He returns, gives word of his discovery, and then what is his fleet going to be saying? “How did you get there? Make it easier on us by letting us follow your example, your path”. So, the captain says, “well, it’s really rough waters and it’s really hard to find. not many will make it, but those who look to me, consider my ways, and follow me, will find it”.
Isn’t that basically what Jesus said? “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Or, “And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Or, “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. [and then he says] If you know these things, blessed are you who do them [you are blessed if you are persecuted in my name].”
So, Jesus expects us to follow him through thick and thin. To lose our lives like he did in order to gain our lives, like he did. To suffer pain and mockery like he did, to gain glory, as he did. But think about what that means for suffering. Paul understood exactly what Jesus was saying here, and it’s what fueled his passion and joy in suffering. Perhaps you remember his words in Philippians 3:10, “10 [oh!] that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, [that I] may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” What an honor and joy it is to suffer in the name of Christ! For that kind of suffering is only going to result in your glory, and in the glory of the pioneer who brought you to him.
So, that’s the path that Jesus pioneered for us. And the way this changes the way we regard our suffering in the big picture of God’s plan for us in Christ is that it connects our suffering to Christ’s sufferings which only end in glory. We need to keep in mind this intimate connection between suffering with Christ, and being glorified with Christ—and to remember that your pioneer has already experienced any and every kind of suffering you might be experiencing now. And, he did it so that you might identify with him, learn from the way he endured, and persevere behind him with his help as he pulls you into glory from his Father’s right hand. Hebrews 2:18 has already hinted at all of this — “because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is [therefore] able to help [us] who are being tempted”.
Four Lessons from Our Pioneer on Suffering
So, let’s consider him for a moment. How did Jesus resist all the opposition and hatred and pains of this world, with perfectly faithful endurance to the end? Oh, there are so many lessons on endurance and faithfulness to God that we need to learn from Jesus, our older brother and pioneer. If we would just consider his ways. Let me just give you a few lessons we can learn from his endurance.
The first lesson is popping out of the page at us—we are to suffer joyfully. Consider Jesus, who “for the joy set before him endured the cross”. What joy was set before him? The infinite, limitless joy of all authority, power, salvation, and judgment being credited to him. The Father was pleased to give all authority over to his son. He was pleased to glorify his son. He gave his son a mission, a people to save and enjoy—even a bride to love and die for. And, upon completion of this task the Father would then give “all authority” to the Son. There’s a joy set before the Son. And of course, the Son doesn’t keep this glory to himself. Part of the joy set before the Son was to glorify the Father who gave him this task, this bride, this authority. Moments before his death Jesus prayed in John 17, “Father, the hour has come, glorify the son so that the Son may glorify you”. In other words, Jesus’s supreme joy was to receive these gifts from the Father so that he might glorify the father rather than himself. And, the reason is quite simple: the supreme joy and honor and privilege for any being—even God himself—is to glorify God. And let me tell you this: suffering is a prime opportunity to glorify God, as you say to yourself and the world, “even though my wife just smashed that car head-on, and flew threw the window, I can say with the Psalmist that God is enough. He will care for me. He will satisfy me and be faithful. Even though my flesh and my heart and this world and my family may fail, God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever”. Christ, on the cross, knew that the Father was enough—that he would be faithful to raise him from the dead and satisfy him with that incomparable joy which was set before him. And so you, keep suffer well, to the glory of God, with the joy that is set before you. The joy of fellowship with God, experiencing God’s faithfulness to you, and the joy of glorifying your Father in the hardest of times.
The second lesson from the way Jesus suffered is just an extension of this. How do you pursue a joy that is set before you? By faith. Jesus trusted in the Father with an unshakable faith that the Father would raise him from the dead, and glorify him. First Peter 2:23 reminds us that Jesus, “when he was reviled, did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” God would justly raise Jesus from the dead according to Jesus’s perfect righteousness, and according to the Father’s promise. When it really comes down to it, Jesus suffered and obeyed the Father by faith—just as we are called to do. He pioneered this path for us, and we are to pursue it just as he did. Only we are not trusting in the Father to raise us according to our own righteousness, but according to Christ’s righteousness.
The third lesson from Christ is to despise shame—if shame or persecution is the nature of your sufferings. The idea here is to disregard it, not necessarily to mock or hate it. In fact, when Jesus was hanging on the cross what did he actually say to those mocking him? Did he “despise them”? “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”. What it means for Christ to despise shame here, is to be unafraid, or unmoved by it. And, perhaps, to pity those who are shaming you.
And the last lesson we might consider from Christ’s sufferings is not so much from this passage, but from a general contemplation of the sufferings Christ received. Consider the severity of Christ’s sufferings. Consider how tremendously terrible they were. He was hunted down by religious elites seeking to kill him. The devil sought to destroy him in the desert. And having taken on our human nature, his own flesh was subject to internal temptations. Hebrews 4 says, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin”. And in all these afflictions, he was preparing himself as a sacrifice to God, to take upon himself God’s infinite wrath, and the curse of death, upon himself for his people. We cannot begin to imagine that kind of suffering. But he did it, trusting in his Father, for the joy set before him. And he also did it for you, that he might help you, guide you, and lead you as your pioneer who has gone before you. I have heard many people say things like this—“if the Lord endured that kind of suffering, I have no doubt he can help me through this light, momentary affliction”.
So, having said all that—the main point here is that Christ changes the way we regard our suffering in the big picture of God’s purposes for us. Christ is our model—he pioneered a path through suffering to glory. And, we follow. We suffer in the same path that leads to the same glory. And, we would do well to consider the ways of our pioneer, how he endured the suffering. He endured by faith in his Father’s care to him, with a focus on the joy set before him, and with an unwavering commitment to glorify the Father.
2. How to regard suffering in the moment
Now, what about the rest of the passage, with all this talk of the Father’s discipline? This passage is goldmine for the way we regard our suffering—especially when we are in the moment of it. You see that attention to the momentary pain of suffering when the passage says, “for the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant”. There’s an acknowledgement here that suffering really hurts. And it’s as if this passage were saying, “when you feel that pain, remember this specific word about your father’s loving hand of discipline”.
But there’s another component to this passage that leads me to believe that Hebrews is narrowing our attention down to the heat of the moment. And, that reason is in verse 4 where Hebrews reminds the early Jewish Christians, “in your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood”—but, (as everyone is thinking as they consider the current events of the time) its coming soon. That kind of persecution is coming soon, and all the signs are pointing to it.
This actually is a verse that has helped some people date the book of Hebrews, since this verse makes it sound like the author is seeing current events and trends bubbling up into a season that will likely mean the death of many Christians. So, having struck this sensitive matter which the church was probably well aware of, the author dives directly into a beautiful way in which we can regard our sufferings in the heat of the moment. Verse 5,
“Have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?”
This is the encouragement the author brings to these Christians in the most crucial moment of suffering—the moment when you know severe suffering may begin any moment. What are you thinking about in those moments? If you are focused on this world, or on the upcoming pain, then you will be filled with fear, anxiety, and uncertainty. But what word does the Bible give you in this particular moment? It tells you to regard all suffering and affliction as in the hand of your heavenly father, who appoints and disposes kings and who will not let a hair fall from your head without his purposeful design permitting it.
Now, first I just want to point out that the Bible does not regard everyone as God’s child. To be a child of God is a privelege given through the gospel. John 1:12 reminds us “to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God”. Meaning, they weren’t children of God before they received him. The common teaching that we are all children of God is a lie—the Bible simply doesn’t talk that way. We are natural-born enemies of God, naturally inclined to sin against God, in need of his redemption. And of course, this means that when we become God’s children, it is through God's gracious work of adoption through the gospel. When we receive Christ by faith, God declares us righteous in Christ, and then adopts us into his family and fatherly care.
J. I. Packer said at this point,
Adoption is the highest privilege that the gospel offers: higher even than justification.. . To be right with God the Judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father is greater.
And, it is this matter that Hebrews presents to us in for the moment before, and during intense suffering.
Three Ways Our Father's Discipline is Comforting
Let me offer you some ways to understand God’s fatherly discipline which might be helpful for you in the moment of sufferings.
First, discipline ought to reassure you of your father’s love for you. That’s the point of verses 7–8,
7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.
Isn’t that awesome? When you receive Christ, then the Bible tells you that God adopts you as his child, and that arranges all your suffering to be a matter of discipline. All persecution, all of the devil’s attacks against you, all of your struggles with your flesh—God designs these not for your harm but for your good. And, this passage I think is speaking about afflictions that are targeted against us because we are Christians. “It is for discipline that you have to endure”—endure what? You have to endure the world saying “renounce Christ”. You have to endure the lies of the devils. You have to endure those desires and lures of the flesh which worldly people care little to nothing about. As you feel these things pull at your soul, and you actually care that they might pull you away from Christ—that tension and fight within you is a sign to you that God has worked the grace of faith and repentance in your heart, and that he is disciplining you. He is training you to renounce this world and to run to him. If you don’t struggle with that fight, then you are “illegitimate children and not sons”. So, be reassured when you face these struggles. If you didn’t face them, you’d face God as your judge rather than your loving father.
The second way our father’s discipline is an encouragement to us in the moment of suffering is that, as this passage says, God disciplines us this way for our good. This is the second half of verse 10, going into verse 11.
10 ...he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
It really is amazing how effective discipline actually is. Pain really is a deterrent. And, I really do believe that the pain which our Father’s discipline seeks to cultivate is pain within the heart rather than on our physical bodies. There are times when the occasion of our discipline might be physical—we get persecuted and beaten. But the Lord’s actual chastisement, or discipline in even those physical afflictions is more targeted at the heart. Again—in any case of affliction which you might receive from the world, flesh or devil, you will have to make a decision to choose the world or God. And it is painful for the Christian to dwell upon that for any given time. The goal of discipline is to train you more and more to immediately say, “I choose God”. Have you ever been in that moment of inward turmoil? You know what God is calling you to, but you also know what your flesh wants. And the more you sit on that—or perhaps the more you actually indulge the flesh—the more uneasy you get. In fact, you might even get short-tempered with your family or spouse, especially as you keep the matter hidden. And the Spirit in those moments is hounding you to do the right thing: to repent and choose God’s grace and righteousness. That unrelenting Spirit is the Lord’s discipline to repent from your slothfulness, your indecision, and to choose him and his ways.
And, the beautiful thing is that a well seasoned Christian who has been trained by this over time will be much quicker to avoid the Spirit’s disquieting and uneasy calls to repentance, and simply choose God right away. This discipline produces the “peaceful fruit of righteousness”—that righteousness which pleases the Spirit and produces the fruit of the Spirit.
So, God’s discipline is reassuring that you really are a child of God, and it is also good for you—it produces the peaceful fruit of righteousness. But it is also trustworthy. That’s the third way God’s fatherly discipline is a help to you in the midst of your suffering.
Verses 9 and 10 tell us,
We have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them [the unspoken word here is, despite their shortcomings—parents, have you ever disciplined your kids, and then had to later apologize?]. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them [again, an emphasis on their limitations], but he disciplines us for our good…
We aren’t talking about a fallible Father here who might accidently convict us of sin when we were not in sin. We aren’t talking about a fallible Father who might accidently give us an affliction that he couldn’t control or use for our good. So, be encouraged even in the moment of your afflictions that God’s discipline is not only for your reassurance that you are his child, and it is not only for your good, but it is entirely reliable with a targeted purpose tailor-made for you. God is working your salvation together. Trust him.
So, in all this, we would do well to remember that have all the more reasons to look to Jesus. When we look to him by faith, we do not merely see our high priest who is ministering to us, offering us salvation and interceding prayers for our perseverance. We also see in him purpose—or design—for our suffering. He is our pioneer who suffered his way to glory. We are called to follow him. And as we do, remember that he has granted you the privilege of adoption, wherein God takes you in as your Father, and loves you with a reassuring and trustworthy hand of discipline, for your good.