16th Sunday After Pentecost: When Quitting Crosses Your Mind
“Wherefore I pray that ye faint not at my tribulations for you, which is your glory.” (Ephesians 3:13)
As Paul writes Ephesians, he can see there’s a crisis approaching. He’d often written letters when groups of believers faced crises. Sometimes, the crisis involved false teaching. Sometimes, it was persecution. There had also been moral failure, rival apostles, and more. This time, the crisis involves Paul’s own imprisonment. Paul’s imprisonment isn’t a crisis for Paul himself; rather, it’s a crisis for those who had come to hear and believe the gospel that Paul preached. It’s a crisis of confidence. The reality of Paul’s imprisonment—which by now had been going on for years—seemed to be a contradiction to the gospel message he preached. The gospel proclaims that Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth, but the great preacher of the gospel is under the power of the Roman Empire. The gospel proclaims that Jesus brings freedom and life, but the gospel preacher is bound, deprived of freedom, and perhaps even facing death. And so, Paul can see, there’s a real danger for these believers. It’s a danger that having heard of his imprisonment, they would faint...they would lose their courage, wonder whether it’s all worth it, abandon their trust and hope and love, and give up living for Jesus...they run away from the cross he would have them bare.
So Paul writes to them from prison. He writes to them about boldness and courage and confidence and glory. And as he writes about all these things, he wants them to see his hardships in a whole new light. What he writes will help us to do the same: to lift our eyes, and to see our own circumstances in the light of the gospel of Christ.
In Isaiah 40:31 says, "But they that wait with hope in the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall take wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint." That word faint was the word Saint Paul used as well. He did not want the Ephesians to faint. He did not want them to lose courage.
Many people have fainted physically. It is usually caused by a disturbance in blood circulation due to fatigue, pain, shock, abnormal blood pressure, arterial blockage, or heart failure. In the spiritual realm many faint and do not realize that it keeps them from reaping now and in eternity what God desires they glean. We are promised to reap in "due season" if we faint not (Galatians 6:9).
There are so many things that we must not allow to cause us to "pass out" or "faint" spiritually speaking:
I. Fiery Furnaces. One of the most well known accounts in the Bible is that of the three Hebrew children who were thrown into the fire (Daniel 3). Peter spoke of the "fiery trial" in I Peter 4:12, when he says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange and new were happening to you.” Trials come to us, they complete us, and they conform us. Many have gone through the "fiery trial." We need to be like the Hebrew children, who when facing the fiery furnace said, “For behold our God, whom we worship and serve, is able to save us from the furnace of burning fire, and to deliver us out of thy hands, O king." (Daniel 3:17).
II. Frustrating People. I think of how Paul had problems with John Mark (Acts 12). Paul and Barnabus became divided over taking him on another missionary journey. In 2 Timothy 4:10 Paul was frustrated over Demas forsaking him, loving this present world system more then the Apostle. Also, in 3 John 1:9, we see that there was a layman by the name of Diotrophes who frustrated John–and wanted more than anything else to have first place among the brethren and he had rejected John. There are frustrating people who "say" and "do" things they should not in life.
III. Failing Health. If your health is failing you, you should still make up your mind, by God’s grace, you will continue and not faint.
IV. A Foggy Vision. The Bible says, "We see through a mirror darkly" (1 Corinthians 13:12). Sometimes we do not see as clearly down the road as we want to see, but we must realize that one day we will be "face to face" with our Redeemer, "face to face" to see and know.
V. Faltering Faith. In Mark 9 a son had an evil spirit in him. The demon was trying to destroy him. If the father would only believe, all things were possible. The father of the boy cried, "Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief." Our faith may falter but it does not need to fail.
Again we read in todays epistle: Wherefore I pray that ye faint not at my tribulations for you, which is your glory.
What does it mean that Paul’s tribulations and afflictions are “for you, which is your glory”? Part of the answer is that Paul’s preaching of the gospel, including his imprisonment for that gospel, has led to these people becoming believers in the first place. But that’s only part of the answer. Paul doesn’t just see his afflictions as an unfortunate way to achieve a positive outcome. Rather, he wants his readers to glory in his afflictions. He says that his afflictions “are your glory”.
This only makes sense in light of what he’s said so far in Ephesians. That is, it only makes sense in the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ: the one who was crucified and who is now risen.
This is where we see the glorious God revealing himself and bringing about his great plans for the universe. God’s glory is shown through Jesus dying on the cross for our sins, to bring reconciliation and peace. God’s glory is shown through Jesus Christ rising from the dead. And because we have the Holy Spirit, and we are risen with Christ, we can look forward to God’s glory being revealed in a new creation and to sharing in that glory with all the holy ones. So Paul’s hardships aren’t something to lose courage over. Nor are they just an unfortunate means that God has used to achieve his goal. Rather, Paul’s hardships themselves are a sign of God’s glory, just as Jesus’ suffering was. They point to the very heart of the gospel that Paul preaches: the cross and the resurrection of Jesus. They also point to our glorious future inheritance. And so they are for our glory.
Suffering and Glory
In some ways, Paul’s afflictions were unique. But his attitude to his afflictions can give us insight into what we can say about our own suffering, especially in light of the glory of the gospel of Christ Jesus.
Should we say: “suffering is an illusion, glory is a reality”? No, suffering is real. And if we know the gospel of God’s grace, we can face up to it.
Should we say: “suffering is bad, glory is good”? In its most basic sense, yes we should. All things being equal, we shouldn’t go searching out suffering for the sake of it, and we should avoid it if we can. But we can’t always avoid it, and we should never try to avoid or escape it at the cost of our convictions or obedience to God.
Should we say: “suffering leads me to glory”?
Again, there’s a great truth to this statement (see Acts 14:22). It can help us to see the way God uses suffering to work in our individual lives and point us to eternal life. But still, there’s more than can be said.
Knowing the confidence we can have in our access to God through faith in Christ, we can look beyond ourselves. Even in our suffering, we can say with Paul: “My suffering is your glory.” Because even as we suffer and our hearts ache in this fallen world, as we live for Christ in the midst of that suffering, we are in fact, doing something incredibly valuable for the sake of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are displaying to them the glory of the crucified and risen Christ, and we are pointing them to our glorious, heavenly inheritance—even in and through our own suffering.
This teaches us something about how much we should value our brothers and sisters in Christ who face hardship in this world, doesn’t it? Those with a disability, those enduring a chronic condition, those who are being put down or deprived or persecuted for holding on to Jesus, those who struggle with singleness or childlessness or sexual desires that can’t be fulfilled while honoring God, and many more: how do we see these brothers and sisters?
Compassion is vital.
But we shouldn’t just see them as people to pity. Love and practical help is also vital. If we can relieve or remove the pain, that’s wonderful and we should do so. But we shouldn’t just see them as people with “needs” or as a burden. They are people who have value—inherently. And it’s not just that they have value despite their hardship. They have value in and indeed because of their hardship. Their endurance in these hardships points us to Christ’s death and resurrection, and points us to our heavenly inheritance.
Here are the words of a young Christian who had ministered the gospel, in a profound way, to others. His name was Zack. In a student magazine, each student had 50 words to describe themselves. Zack said this:
“I have been blessed with a brain tumour which will most likely take my life. Please be praying that I use this gift for the glory of God in everything that I do until I go to meet Jesus.”
Zack wasn't in denial. He grasped the truth about the glory of Christ—now and in the future. And in writing these words, Zack was exercising a profound gospel ministry. Our brothers and sisters in Christ who are enduring suffering aren’t just people for us to minister to. They are people who, in their very suffering and endurance, are ministers of the gospel to us. In fact, often those who have suffered or are suffering now, make the most powerful gospel ministers of all. Why? Because that’s what the gospel is. It’s not a message of glory in earthly health or earthly happiness or earthly fulfillment. It’s a message of glory in the cross of Christ.
What is your most common reaction when you face hardships in life?
How does the confidence we have in the cross of Christ help you to see suffering—your suffering and the suffering of others—in a new light?