A few weeks ago, I was talking with a couple of our folks here, and they asked me my opinion on the Rapture. I think they were a bit surprised when I told them I don’t believe in the Rapture—I will grant, mine is not the most common opinion—and wanted to know my reasons. There wasn’t time for an exhaustive explanation, so I pulled out 1 Thessalonians 4 and explained my understanding of the passage; that was sufficient unto the task, and we moved on to other things. I could have said more, though, about why I don’t believe God is going to give the church a “get out of suffering free” card on the Great Tribulation—with the simplest reason being, and maybe this sounds cynical of me, that he never gives us a “get out of suffering free” card on anything else. Like I said last week, God saves us into the world and its troubles, not out of them; if anything, we may even get a rougher ride than the average. The only thing that surprises me about that is that sometimes it surprises me, because I really ought to know better; my 11th-grade English teacher always used to say, “You’ve never lived ‘til you’ve been whomped,” and so it logically follows that if Jesus came so that we might have life, and have it abundantly, being whomped is going to be an important part of that.
Now, maybe that makes sense to you and maybe it doesn’t, but I’d argue that experience bears it out. In what is probably my generation’s collective favorite movie, The Princess Bride, the hero, Westley, snaps, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” I can only add that whatever they’re selling isn’t good for you, and will probably only leave you worse off in the long run. There’s just no way to avoid it: pain and suffering are part of the deal in this world. That’s part of what I meant when I said last week that Jesus doesn’t give us victory over our circumstances, but rather in the midst of our circumstances.
What then does it mean, at those times when our circumstances involve suffering, for us to live into the victory of Christ, the victory of the gospel, in the midst of suffering? I’d like to look at a couple things this morning. First, consider King Jehoshaphat. Our passage from 2 Chronicles is a continuation of the passage we read last week, which was Jehoshaphat’s prayer; if you were here last week, you remember that it was a time of crisis. The nation of Judah, the southern kingdom of the Israelites, had been invaded by armies from an alliance of three of their longstanding enemies—Moab, Ammon, and the people of Mt. Seir, the Meunites—and by the time the king got word, those armies had already overcome Israel’s frontier defenses and advanced as far as En-Gedi. This was important because En-Gedi was a major oasis west of the Dead Sea, and probably fortified, to boot—it certainly was later on; capturing En-Gedi meant that the allied armies had a source of fresh water and a base from which to support themselves as they pushed on into Judah. This was a big, big piece of very bad news.
In response, Jehoshaphat called a fast throughout the country, asking everyone to set aside food and all their normal activities to pray to God for help. Those who could do so came to Jerusalem, and they had a big prayer service, and the king stood up and prayed the prayer we read last week. I noted at the time that his prayer expresses his faith that God can and will deliver his people if we cry out to him—and what’s the foundation for his faith? Something that should sound very familiar to us after our time in Isaiah. Look back up the page at verse 6: “O Lord, God of our fathers, are you not the God who is in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. Power and might are in your hand, and no one can withstand you.” God is the God of everything, and he rules over everything, and everything is under his control—including the global economic system, including the government of this country, including the governments of nations like Iran and North Korea, including the leaders of al’Qaeda and other terrorist groups, including those in this country who want to criminalize certain biblical opinions (as they’ve already succeeded in doing in Canada). In all of it, in every part of it, God is in control, and nothing happens except he allows it. As such, when hard times come, we can cry out to him in full confidence that what we ask, he can do.
So King Jehoshaphat prays, and all his people pray, and then God’s Spirit inspires one of the Levites, a member of the priestly tribe, and he begins to prophesy. And notice what he says: “Don’t be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s. . . . Go out to face them tomorrow, and the LORD will be with you.” The battle is not yours, but God’s. You know, there are all sorts of examples across the books of the Old Testament of Israel and Judah being attacked, being invaded, coming under threat, and of their rulers praying, seeking God, sometimes meeting God’s prophets when they’re trying to avoid seeking God; some of these rulers were godly and faithful people, as much as you can expect, and some of them were rather less so. Some get happy messages, like Jehoshaphat did here—he was one of the good ones—and some don’t. As we saw in looking at Isaiah, Judah would ultimately be conquered and its people taken off into exile as a judgment on them for their sins. Military victory isn’t always in the cards for them, because their agenda and God’s don’t always line up.
But one thing holds consistent: the battle is not yours, but God’s. This gets said a dozen different ways by a dozen different prophets to a dozen different kings. God is in control here, and he’s going to accomplish his purposes. It’s not up to you in your own strength, by your own little schemes and plans and methods, to make this happen—God’s going to do that. Sometimes that means his judgment is coming, and you’re not going to be able to turn it aside; sometimes—more often, really—it means that his deliverance is coming, and you can be free of the fear of screwing it up, or being inadequate to the task. Always it means that God is supreme, and that it’s only by his power that the battle will be won; not that we’re free to do nothing, because he still calls us to do our part, but that we need to let go the idea that it depends on us and our efforts.
Thus the prophet tells Jehoshaphat, “The battle is not yours, but God’s,” but he doesn’t tell the king to stay home and get on with other things. Instead, he tells them to march out of the city and take up defensive positions against the enemy—to go out to the battle, and then let God fight it. And so what do they do? They go out to the desert and take up their defensive positions, and then they take up their weapon: they sing songs of praise to God for the deliverance that hasn’t happened yet. And as they begin to sing—not before, but only as they act in faith and declare through their praise their certainty that God will be faithful to do as he has promised—it is then that God ambushes the enemy armies, turning them against each other and destroying them. He gives them the victory, through their faith; and he does the same for us.
Now, as we’ve noted, our victory in Christ doesn’t always look as straightforward as the victory Jehoshaphat experienced. Looking back, I would say that I experienced the victory of Christ in my last church in Colorado, though it didn’t feel like it at the time. Certainly, had I been a perfect pastor or had they been perfect people, things would have been better, but I was never going to be and neither were they—and our errors and sins didn’t derail God’s plan and purpose. It was hard, and there was a lot of pain in it, and a lot of things that I’m still dealing with (and surely the same for them); and yet, there were people who came to Christ, and others who grew in their faith, and some deep and very difficult and painful issues from hurts that had been inflicted on that people in the past were brought out into the open where they could begin to heal. It’s not the victory I asked for; I had dreams of the church growing by leaps and bounds, of a revival breaking out in that pagan little community, and all sorts of other spectacular things. I would have preferred a victory that involved less suffering. Nevertheless, that was the victory God intended, and through all of our best efforts—even when we thought we were doing other things—he brought it about. He is faithful who promised.
That’s why the second thing I would say to you is, have courage. John Piper summarizes Paul’s main point in our passage from 2 Timothy this way: “Timothy, keep feeding the white-hot flame of God’s gift—namely, of unashamed courage to speak openly of Christ and to suffer for the gospel.” I think he’s right to see that as the overarching message of this passage, and indeed of the whole letter. Note that: the idea is to see suffering for the sake of the gospel as something to be faced with courage, not something to be avoided. What’s specifically in view here, of course, is suffering that comes as a result of preaching the gospel, in the form of persecution; but I think the application is broader than that. To take one famous example, Adoniram Judson’s terrible suffering in Burma came not because he was preaching the gospel but because of war between Burma and Great Britain—yet his suffering was not any less for the sake of the gospel because of that, and he was not in any less need of courage with which to face it. If we’re seeking to follow Jesus faithfully, suffering and hard times will come, as the enemy tries to knock us off balance, to get us to back down or to doubt our Lord; if we hold fast and keep following Jesus, then our suffering is for his sake and for the sake of the gospel.
And we should hold fast, and we should keep following, and we should do so with boldness; and we should face the prospect of suffering—including, yes, the prospect of suffering for telling people about Jesus, though for the near future, that suffering is unlikely to involve more than a little resistance and a little rejection—we should face that prospect with boldness, for good reason. In fact, for two good reasons, in fact. One, we have a wonderful message to share: our Savior Christ Jesus destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. That’s something we ought to be excited about, and we ought to want to talk about with anyone who will listen and most people who won’t; for something that good, we shouldn’t be put off when people resist us.
And two, we have the Spirit of God, who is a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. We were talking about this a bit around our table yesterday morning, that we often don’t want to take seriously the fact that we have the Spirit in our lives, because we’re afraid of what might happen if we do. Which is to say, ironically enough, that we’re afraid of no longer having a spirit of fear—we’re afraid of what we might do if we acted in a spirit of power and love and self-control. We’re afraid to let go control and let God work, and I think at least in part that’s because if we do that, we might suffer.
And you know what? If we let go, we will suffer—it’s guaranteed. We have God’s word on that. But you know what else? If we don’t, we’re still going to suffer—the only difference is, it won’t be for God. We’ll suffer instead for our fears, and our doubts, and our sins, and there will be no victory in it. If we are willing to face the prospect of suffering for the gospel with boldness, with unashamed courage, by the power of the Spirit of God who is in us—who is not a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power and love and self-control—well, we’ll suffer either way, but if it’s for the gospel, it’s not for nothing, it’s for a purpose; and if we suffer for the gospel, then we suffer for Jesus, and he is with us in our suffering by the power of his Spirit.
The key thing in all this, I think, is that our suffering for the gospel is not unnecessary, it is not incidental, it is not pointless, and it does not mean that we have been defeated. Rather, as God used the suffering of Christ on the cross to crush the power of sin and death, so he works through our suffering for his sake to accomplish his purposes in us. He uses our suffering to humble us, to soften us, to teach us, to sand away our sin—and to prepare us to minister to others in their suffering, for we could not speak the word that sustains the weary and gives hope to those in pain had we not known weariness and pain ourselves; and when we suffer, he is with us to uphold us and to bring us through it, because he understands. He’s been there too.