Saturday, April 11, 2009

Suffering and the Gospel- Part 7 (conclusion)

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7

At the cross, the curse and condemnation for our sin was exhausted upon Jesus Christ. For those who are trusting and resting in Christ alone, judgment for sin is not a future event waiting for us after we die- it is a past event that happened finally and fully at Calvary. "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1).

So does that mean that once you become a Christian, you don't suffer any more?

After all, if- as we've learned- suffering is meant to drive us to repentance, and if we have repented and trusted Christ, why would we need to suffer any more? If suffering is a display of our sin, and yet that sin has been paid for in full by Christ on the cross, by what rights do we still endure any hardship?

The logic is sound. And one day it will be true.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away." And he who was seated on the throne said, "Behold, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true."(Rev. 21:1-5)

The crucial question for all this is when. And the answer is not yet.

In the great sweep of redemption, we find ourselves caught in the awkward place between the already and the not yet. The decisive victory was won by Christ on the cross (Col. 2:15), and yet we are still waiting for the final consummation of redemption (1 Cor. 15:24-25). In Christ we are already new creations (2 Cor. 5:17), yet we groan in these mortal bodies (2 Cor. 5:1-4). There is a glory that will be revealed in us, but in the meantime we do suffer. (Rom. 8:18)

This already-but-not-yet tension is shown up in clearly in our experience with sin, death and suffering. These realities were conquered at the cross. They will be gone in the New Creation. And yet we find that, in this time of already-but-not-yet, though they remain a part of our experience, the in breaking of redemption has decisively and drastically altered our relationship with them.

Consider sin. Before we were born again, we were dead in sins (Eph. 2:1). We were slaves to it (Rom. 6:17). In the New Creation, sin will be no more (1 John 3:2, 1 Cor. 15:42-54, Rev. 22:3). In the meantime, the in-between time, the here-and-now, sin still plagues us. But instead of being enslaved to it, we've been set free (Rom. 6:18). It's still there, but it's not the master any more- it's an enemy combatant. And a sword is put into our hands, and we're told to put it to death. (Rom. 8:13)

The same is true with death. Before redemption, death was the end, the inescapable doorway to judgment (Rom. 6:23, Heb. 9:27). In the New Creation, death will be no more (1 Cor. 15:53-54, Rev. 21:4). In the time between, we do not escape death- but our relationship to it is drastically changed. It is no longer the end (John 11:25-26), no longer an enemy. It is now our ally, because it ushers us directly into the presence of our Lord (Phil. 1:21-23). Physical death is still a reality, but because of the cross, it is now gain.

And the same goes for suffering. When we are saved, it is not removed from our lives. But no longer is suffering a warning of the coming judgment- instead, in the words of Romans 8:22, it becomes the "pains of childbirth" for the coming New Creation. In order to draw this out, let's back up a bit and briefly consider the words of Romans 8:18-24.

Verse 18 says "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us." The first thing we see is that suffering is very small, and very temporary. There is a glory coming, and it is so great that our present suffering doesn't hold a candle to it.

What Paul does next is roots our suffering in a broader creation context. Our sufferings, temporal as they are, are part of the broader suffering of this material universe. "For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility." (8:19-20) That's talking about the curse of Genesis 3. The creation did not subject itself to futility. It didn't choose this. Someone or something else subjected it. That's what the rest of the verse says- "not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope."

Adam didn't subject the creation to futility in hope. Satan can't do that. God subjected the creation to futility in hope. That's just what we read in Genesis 3- that God brought the universe down with man. But follow very closely here: He subjected the creation "in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay, and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God." (Rom. 8:21)

You and I are going to be set into a glorious freedom. We will have new bodies, we will be changed, incorruptible, set free from this body of sin and death. That is the consummation our salvation (Rom. 8:23, 1 Cor. 15:19-26, 54-57). But the scope of redemption is broader than just you and I. Just asthe creation came down with Adam, it will come back up when Christ restores all things. The whole creation will share the freedom of the children of God. "But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells." (2 Peter 3:13)

We're waiting. It's not here yet. And while we wait, vs. 22, "We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now."

To the unrepentant sinner, the sufferings of this world are death throes, forebodings and warnings of final destruction. But to those who have trusted Christ, the sufferings of this present creation become the birth pangs of the new creation.

John Piper helps sharpen this amazing transformation with the following illustration:

If you are in a hospital and you hear a woman across the hall groan or scream, it makes all the difference in how you feel if you know you are on the maternity ward and not the oncology unit. Why? Pain is pain, isn't it? No. Some pain leads to life. And some pain leads to death. And what verse 22 promises is that for the children of God, all pain leads to life. All the groanings of this world are the birth pains of the kingdom of God. If you are part of the kingdom – a child of the King – all your sufferings are labor pains and not death spasms. And I mean all of them – even the death spasms!

As Christians, we've been transferred to the maternity ward, so to speak. Cancer, death, suffering- these are not impending threats of judgment, but scream of a new life that is coming forth!

"And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience." (vs. 23-25)

Suffering is an extremely hopeful experience. Suffering takes our eyes off this age and orients them on the age to come. Suffering reminds us of the cross, and all that Jesus did for us in His life and death. Suffering reminds us that Christ is risen, as the firstfruits of the New Creation. Suffering reminds us that we shall be like Him, changed in a moment. And suffering should make us care less about big screen TVs and more about seeing the face of Christ.

So be patient, suffering Christian. Just as a mother chooses to endure the pain of childbirth for the sake of the new life, so we also suffer with the rest of creation, knowing what joy lies ahead of us.

"Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal." (2 Cor. 4:16-18)


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So in the end, suffering is all about the Gospel. The gospel is not a just private thing: it is a cosmic thing, encompassing all of creation. Tsunamis and terrorists are shouts to repent. The cross of Christ has effected a cosmic change, and we believers now suffer the birth pangs of the coming new heavens and new earth.

There is so much more that can be said. But know that the gospel is the plot of time and eternity and history. God's glory shines through everything. In the rough and tumble and blood, sweat and tears of daily life, we must never loose sight of this big picture.

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